The Roundhouse is a remarkably flexible space. This north London railway shed and one time iconic music venue reopened to public after a costly refurbishment with De La Guardias dazzling Fuerzabruta, an Argentine aerial spectacle. And now it is to be the London home for the RSCs recent run of history plays.
Michael Boyds series of productions of the Histories were first performed in Stratford-upon-Avon as part of the mammoth Complete Works Festival in the order Shakespeare wrote them, allowing audiences to appreciate the bards development as a writer. In London they are being staged chronologically, starting with Richard II, a plays about an inadequate king whose usurpation sets in motion a bloody chain of events.
As Richard, Jonathan Slinger gives an absolutely towering performance. It is big, mannered acting and it could easily be too much, but he manages to pitch it correctly throughout. His Richard is a, at times, monstrous figure; vain, cosseted and fey. He prances about the stage in jewelled shoes, hurling goblets when displeased. He sometimes behaves like a pampered child but is also a volatile adult and seems to believe completely in the divine right of kings, that his position as monarch has been lain upon him by God himself, that he should be second only to God in his subjects eyes. Later in the play, deposed and stripped of his finery, Slinger manages to eke out real sympathy for Richard; he seems truly lost, a man resigned to his fate.
There is also an intentional androgyny to his performance. Bewigged and white-faced, his resemblance to Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen, is marked. Indeed, the programme notes highlight how the aging Elizabeth I was also, like Richard, surrounded with fawning favourites and Boyds production brings these parallels very much to the fore.
Slinger is supported by a terrific ensemble cast, with Clive Woods leather-caped and contemplative Bolingbroke everything Richard is not: decisive, commanding, confident. He has ambition but also a heart and looks genuinely pained when the bloody aftermath of his ousting of Richard becomes apparent, when the bodies (or bits of them) literally start mounting up around his throne. The members of Richards court are also very well played, particularly Anthony Shuster as the preening Green and Forbes Mason as Bagot.
The production is visually striking and sits well in the cavernous Roundhouse space. A central copper tower and two walkways leading out into the auditorium mean that both the considerable horizontal and vertical capabilities of the venue are employed in the staging often with incredible invention without sacrificing a sense of intimacy along the way. For the duel between Mowbray and Bolingbroke, two saddles descend from the ceiling, giving a real heart-in-mouth thrill to the scene. Later in the play Boyd takes from the text the line about the usurped king being pelted with dust and rubbish as he is taken through the streets and shows us Richard being showered in sand. It tumbles down on him from on high, bathing him, like the touch of God.
Though it touches the three hour mark this is a gripping and cohesive production, tense, unexpected and, at times, very moving; it never lags or drags. It is a revelatory staging, insightful and intelligent, that stands alone but also bodes extremely well for the rest of the plays in this run of Histories.