Richard II at the Donmar Warehouse

Donmar Warehouse is a very special place, as it allows the theatre goers a rare opportunity to sit so close to the stage, one almost feel like he is in the middle of the events, as they take RichardIIplace just before your eyes and the play’s grip on you is made even more powerful. William Shakespeare‘s Richard II has been staged many times, but it’s the first time I have seen this production and it has left a very powerful imprint on me.

This play is the swan song of Donmar’s artistic director, Michale Grandage, who took over from Sam Mendes in 2002 and even though this is only the second play that I saw under his directorship of the theatre (the first being ‘Red‘ also with Eddie Redmayne and Alberto Molina), I think he created a vision and an authentic feeling in the theatre, where everything, from the theatre itself to the young and enthusiastic staff makes you enjoy the theatrical experience so much, you always long to come back-and the sooner the better!  

Last saturday’s evening started with a winter Pimms for me, at the Donmar’s bar and then we walked to the auditorium, which smelled like an incense that is usually burnt in churches,which really created an atmosphere even before you got to your seat. As I sat down, I saw Eddie Redmayne who plays Richard II, sitting on the throne, silent and still, like a Buddha, looking like he was meditating, at peace with himself, in his inner sanctum. The audience was ready and the magic started taking hold.

My initial thought that Eddie, who is tall and skinny, like a grasshopper, was too young for that role, but as the dramatic events of the play unfold and the mood goes from a humorous one to a grey, cloud-gathering one, his passion and vigour and complete immersion in the character is so complete, his passion burning bright, he grips you and you fall under the spell of a mature and very talented actor.

Even though the language of Shakespeare has been modified for our times, you have to listen very attentively to fully comprehend what is being said-during the break I heard one lady telling another that an elderly American lady, sitting next to her in the first act fell asleep and when she woke up five minutes before the interval she seemed lost and wanted to know who she was watching. I loved the beauty of the language and the depth of what was being said, and when I left the theatre, my mind kept wondering how can the actors remember such long texts for their roles and remain in the historical character, taking their audience by the hand and immersing it into true historic events.

This play has it all-the laughter, the history, the depth of the characters, the virtuosity of the actors that bowls you over, the tragedy and the pause for thought-I was mesmerised by the passion and pain with which Eddie Redmayne infused the character of the King, at times his fragility bubbled to the surface or the froth appeared on his lips when he spoke passionately or full of pain as the King was loosing the grip on his Kingdom. He was equaled by his more senior stage partners Michael Hadley (John Of Gaunt), Ron Cook (Duke of York) and Phillip Joseph,  all three possessing the wisdom of years and actor’s authenticity that just creates a spell-binding effect. I also enjoyed watching Sian Thomas (who plays Duchess of Glocester and Duchess of York) who created such different moods for her character and added a mature femininity to both of her Duchesses.

The younger generation kept the pace well, notably Andrew Buchan, who plays the banished Henry Bolingbroke,who takes the throne away from his cousin, Richard II in the second act of the play) and who has the vigor and the determination to make his character feel young, yet robust and assured in his actions and Pippa Bennett-Warner (who plays Queen Isabel, the wife of the fallen monarch) and adds tenderness and true feeling to her role.

Two and a half hours fly by, especially as the pace gathers in the second act and you throb with feelings of fear and anger as the events take a dramatic turn before the stage goes dark.

As the play only opened on December 1st, I am completely bowled over by how fluid and perfect everything is, with no sign of nerves or fluffed lines from the actors, the perfect stage decorations in tarnished gold hues and the spell-binding effect that the production creates. I don’t know how the actors can be so veritably immersed into their historical characters for the duration of the play and then come back into the 21st century. How do you remember the words, how do you put so much of yourself into this play, when the sweat pores down Eddie’s face and the painful words of a lawful Monarch who lost his crown lift high above into the abyss….

I can’t stop thinking about this play and Richard II character in particular and urge you to go and see it, that is if you can get the tickets. You might struggle with the play if you not used to Shakespearean verse, but then it comes down to the fact of how ready you are as a human to listen, to analyse, to learn and to just enjoy being in that magical world created by a superbly talented and dedicated to their craft group of people, with an end result being nothing short but a triamph.

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