It’s impossible to lead when there’s always someone who won’t be lead. The Tragedy Of King Richard The Second, one of Shakespeare’s lesser known histories, explores some common and relevant subjects. Shakespeare’s original story focuses on the burden of responsibility in the form of the divine right of kings, the weight on Richard’s shoulders leads him to question his morals, and sacrifice the good of the country for his own sanity – who wouldn’t? It must be a challenge faced by every leader who has respect for their purpose. Can a leader ever do a good job or live without a guilty conscience when you or I are judging their every move, often thinking we could do better? 

The Tragedy Of King Richard The Second is a contemporary interpretation, focusing on confinement; with the ensemble working together to tell the story without granting themselves with so much as a break. At times, the claustrophobic concealment of the story is a little inaccessible, with nothing but metaphors and powerfully lucrative language to guide us. However, despite the limited visual spectacle, the cast flow through the soliloquies and units of action without getting too tangled in the long and indulging text. 

At first this is not the case, as the relationships formed between characters are flimsy and self-indulgent. The only visual spectacle: buckets with natural elements such as water, soil and blood, fail to enhance the slow amble of plot, and its purpose seems unnecessary. Similarly, during the plodding exposition, director Joe Hill-Gibbins‘ vision seems absent. However, this is predominantly not the case throughout the story and it soon begins perking up when the ensemble start working together to create a clear relationship between the regal individuals and the court of fools, each seeming to be more suitable to rule than the man before him. It is reminiscent of David Tennant’s King Richard III at the Swan, when the battle of gauges leads to heated rage as the court corrupts. Similarly, the child-like tantrums reflect almost exactly the current state of our own government. They flail around like children in a playground, each using bigger and longer words in order to try and claim some higher status. Yet who am I to comment on the way our politicians argue amongst themselves, when they are doomed to fail with the split beliefs of the country: referendum or no referendum, leave or remain, etc ?

Gibbins is not, however, the captain of a sinking ship, as his ability to find moments of clarity in a complex and very long and complex story is clear. The clown-like attributes of the Lords behold a lighter sense of storytelling with Aumerle (Martins Imhangbe), introducing a letter of betrayal to Bolingbroke (Leo Bill) which is stupidly foiled by York (John MacKay). Similarly, the use of the confined space by Saskia Reeves, Robin Weaver, Natalie Klamar and Joseph Mydell makes for light-hearted fun as they eavesdrop in a slapstick style, creeping around the confined metal walls. 

Simon Russell Beale‘s character arc as King Richard II is a very three-dimensional journey without indulging in his celebrity status or the idea of Richard as a martyr. It is easy to sympathise with the weak and crestfallen king when contrasted to such an upholstered, buoyant king. Equally, the usurper Bolingbroke commands, and justifies his actions in yearning for the crown. Yet, he struggles with the moral obligations it demands. His Jekyll and Hyde-style inner battle for clarity is very authentic.

An interesting take on a story which ebbs and flows. While gripping, The Tragedy of King Richard II is not the easiest or clearest of offerings to take with us into our daily lives.

The Tragedy of King Richard The Second is playing until 2 February. For more information and tickets, visit The Almeida website.