Year of Shakespeare: Richard IIHistoryYear of Shakespeare

  • Erin Sullivan

This post is part of Year of Shakespeare, a project documenting the World Shakespeare Festival, the greatest celebration of Shakespeare the world has ever seen.


Richard II, Ashtar Theatre, dir. Conall Morrison, 4 May 2012 at The Globe, London

By Erin Sullivan, Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham

The first thing we see is a man stumble onto the stage, bewildered, frightened, his white shirt crumpled and smeared with dirt. Two younger men in military dress follow him on, placing a stool downstage centre and gesturing for him to sit. He obeys, looking on with uncertainty as one produces a shaving kit, smears his left cheek with foam, and offers him an open razor. Taking it he begins to shave, when the two men seize him from behind, pinning both of his arms back and grabbing the blade, which they pull, forcefully, across his neck. As he falls to the ground, one of them opens a small vial and pours its sticky, red contents onto his lifeless face. They walk off, and slowly, eerily, he sits up, looking out at the audience as he smears the crimson liquid across his forehead, nose, mouth. This is the Duke of Gloucester, and we have just witnessed his murder.

Those familiar with Shakespeare’s text will know that while Gloucester’s death is a formative event in the plot of the play, it is only spoken about, not seen. By starting with his murder Conall Morrison and Ashtar Theatre immediately root their production in visceral, bloody conflict, rather than the more abstracted, wordy discussion of political division that opens Shakespeare’s original. While we still get this debate between Richard, Bolingbroke (Gloucester’s kinsman), and Mowbray (who is complicit in Gloucester’s murder), it is contextualized by the immediacy of a violent altercation that gives shape and meaning to the fractious events that soon unfold – indeed, the dazed Gloucester is still lingering onstage as they enter arguing, looking on not with malice or vengeance but with confusion, sadness, and longing. This is a world in which too many people die, without a clear reason for why or how such violence has come to pass.

There is much to praise and discuss about this production, so much so that important points will inevitably get left out, but I hope that other audience members will bring up these issues in the discussion thread below. Particularly interesting to me was Sami Metwasi’s portrayal of Richard II as a petulant, vain, but nonetheless charismatic leader. When he oversees the duel between Bolingbroke (Nicola Zreineh) and Mowbray (Ihab Zahdeh) he gestures daintily with his fingers for them to move further apart… and further again… and again still until they are deep into the Globe’s groundling yard. His playful, capricious Richard II is not unlike the clips that I’ve seen of Mark Rylance’s fey ruler for the Globe in 2003, although perhaps with a bit more military machismo and a distinctly modern political arrogance. This Richard, dressed impeccably in a tan military suit decorated with several rows of colourful pins, medals, and insignia, is not a divinely anointed king, but a politically elected official, supremely confident of his right to lead despite the obvious frustration and discontent among his countrymen. After he sentences Bolingbroke and Mowbray to exile, his courtiers enter jokily with a bottle of Jameson and a mirror, which they hold up for Richard as he straightens his collar. Thus the mirror, such a powerful and much-debated prop in the stage history of Richard II (for those who aren’t familiar with the play, it is required by the stage directions to be broken later on, which was a very unusual, and expensive, theatrical specification in Shakespeare’s time) makes an early and casual entrance, underlining the vanity of this king and deflating its significance in the second half when Richard’s fortune is far less secure.

At the interval and after the show I spoke with two Arabic-speaking audience members near me who told me that Richard came across to them as a ‘jokester’, a narcissistic ruler that wasn’t entirely bad, but certainly wasn’t particularly inspiring or heroic either. They also told me that the translation was in ‘formal’ or classical Arabic, the Arabic used by newsreaders and writers but not usually spoken in more casual, friendly settings. There were certain phrases in the language of the play that you wouldn’t understand if you didn’t study Arabic, they told me, and there were also subtle references to modern Palestinian politics that you might miss if, like me, you weren’t very familiar with the cultural dynamics of the situation. In their costuming and behaviour, Richard and his followers signalled the Fatah party, they suggested, and Bolingbroke in his bomber jacket and red beret Hamas (significantly, he changes out of these once he becomes king). When Richard returns from Ireland to find his country in revolt, a half dozen ensemble members appear throughout the Globe auditorium, faces hidden by scarves and flags waiving in the air, an interpretive choice that was reflected back by audience members during the curtain call who unfurled Palestinian flags.

Perhaps contemporary politicization is inevitable in a play so marked by questions of leadership and rule and performed by a company so shaped by national and political circumstances. But it would be wrong, I think, to say that the production was first and foremost a cipher for modern political concerns. For me, it was a production above all striking in its confident, clear, yet complex performances, offering a reading of the play that was at once attentive to the ideas and details put forward in Shakespeare’s text yet unafraid to push them in new directions.


What do you think of this interpretation of Shakespeare? Please add your thoughts to the discussion thread below!


To read more reviews of the performances and events that are a part of the World Shakespeare Festival, visit Year of Shakespeare.


Click on the image below to watch a video recording of this production online for free at THE SPACE:


Listen below to an interview with two of the actors, recorded by the Globe Education Department:


Here’s what others are saying about this performance:

Author: Erin Sullivan

Erin Sullivan is Lecturer and Fellow at the Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham. She is currently editing a book about Shakespeare and the Olympics, and she blogs at You can follow Erin on Twitter @_erinsullivan_