Richard II directed by Dr Charles Morton. Ketterer’s Men at the Shakespeare Institute, 27-30 September 2018.
Reviewed by Sara Marie Westh
Bear with me. I am reminded of the final scenes of Ratatouille, where the irascible reviewer, Ego, finds himself forced by his conscience to admit the brilliance of the place he is reviewing. He ruminates that “In many ways the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and themselves to our judgement. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read.” If Ego is right, this review is not going to be fun to read.
A personal confession: I am in the habit of finding fault with Shakespearean productions. I gamely enter into the spirit of academic criticism, sitting down in the half-dark of pre-show in the expectation of finding points of leverage against the director, the actors, the set, the costumes, and the music. This negative attitude does indeed, as you would expect, more often than not leave me angry at comparatively small matters in the production, and that is definitely my own loss. On the other hand, the gain I derive from this mind-set is that when something delights me, it delights me utterly.
Which brings me on to the Ketterer’s Men Richard II that opened last night.
First of all, this company is renowned for the way its members extracts the meaning from Shakespeare’s text, demonstrating their own comprehensive understanding of the text as they act; here, no one mouths words they cannot fathom. Directed by Dr Charles Morton, the cast easily brings the language to life, and communicates the characters’ intentions clearly to the audience. So far, so standard: I would have expected no less from this company.
Of course, Richard and Henry are the absolute centre of this play, to the point where the actors portraying them make the production or break it. The scope the play demands of them is significant: it is necessary that during the first half, the audience believe in the righteous anger of Bolingbroke and Richard’s prattish superiority. The second half must then manage to reverse the roles, making the deposed king an object of pity, and the rising Henry his fearsome opponent. It is a testament to the considerable abilities of Jonathan Youl (Richard II) and Alexander Thom (Bolingbroke) that this reversal was played with entirely captivating realism. The deposition scene, always poignant, brought the powerful dynamic between the two characters to the forefront: as they face each other, it becomes inescapably clear how far unlike Richard and Henry are as human beings, yet how alike in their ruthlessness as kings.
Next to the king, the strength in adversity Ainsley Brolly gave to his queen, Isabel, was profoundly moving, and added focus to the romance between the royal couple, drenching their small tragedy out of the murky waters of the greater calamities of country, war, and might. When the gardeners joked about the crying queen at the end of the garden scene, it felt like the targeted maliciousness of a faction on the rise.
In Shakespeare’s histories, the laughs are often few and far between, a consequence, no doubt, of their occupation with war, death, and the unmerciful hand of time. However, the comic talents of Josh Caldicott, Elliot Lambert, and David Waterman provided much needed moments of light along this journey into the dark nothingness of unmaking, as did Louis Osborne McElrath, Jen Waghorn, and John Curtis as the family pleading against each other to the king. I have always thought that this scene must be at least a little funny, but I have never laughed at it before.
Music sequences underpin a few, select moments in the story, enough to create a sense of continuum, but not enough to be cloying or intrusive. This is a delicate balance indeed, one a larger company closer to the river Avon has transgressed against time and again (the 2016 Cymbeline springs to mind), but one safe in the expert hands of Jen Waghorn. In particular the final bursts of music that prompts Richard’s thoughts on time were masterful, as was the song played during the end (If You Were Me by Frightened Rabbits, chosen by the director). I still replay that final scene before my mind’s eye, but I cannot bring myself to spoil it for those of you who will follow my advice. Suffice it to say that it is clever, and striking, and moving: it is genius. A few days remain of the run, and if you are in Startford, I can only recommend making time to see it.
To support the truly magnificent work done by The Lizz Ketterer Trust follow this link: www.lizzketterertrust.com/Ketterers_Men.html. To book tickets for Richard II email firstname.lastname@example.org