Brighton Year-Round 2021
Directed and Produced by Joanna Rosenfeld, Co-Produced by Conor Baum, Costumes provided by Gladrags Community Costume Resource. Set pieces and lighting provided by IC Theatre Brighton
Music arranged by Joanna Rosenfeld and Alissandra Henderson and performed by the cast. Next performances 21st and 22nd August.
And it’s… Director Joanna Rosenfeld doesn’t tell us the latest One Fell Swoop Unlocked Shakespeare title for a bit, this institution where a scratch performance can scale vertiginous insights, performative snatches of majesty. It’s always a surprise. For six minutes Rosenfeld sets the scene – there really is one to set: a white pavilion tent pitched in St Ann’s Scented Garden, English British and EU flags fluttering all around and in the audience’s hands as miniatures are doled out.
Like this year’s first OFS, Merry Wives – where reviewer Strat Mastoris mapped direct charactering of Johnson and Brexit – Brexit lingers. Here ‘Oh King Richard’ dirges off at one point very like ‘Oh Jeremy Corbyn’ the day after Ken Loach is ousted from the Labour Party for being a socialist, causing many colleagues to cancel their membership.
Fracturing identity, civil strife, butchering of innocents, sudden collapse of an ill-propped state. How remote it seems. 23 years of peace Richard II brought England, we’re reminded. Try 20: no lord or manufacturer thanks you and it’s easily shattered. Didn’t Richard learn anything from Tony Blair?
Last year on the original OFS zoom Conor Baum showed what he could do with the title part of Richard II – a role he’s born to. Sharing the title part with Sharon Drain this time it’s taken by storm – one of the finest Richard II title traversals I’ve seen. Drain continues the rationales, anticipations and manner of Baum and makes them her own in a different kind of inwardness.
St Ann’s works beautifully here. This 1595 play (second of four that year) is literally grounded in a language that repeatedly invokes ‘this earth’ ‘sit upon the ground’ ‘this plot’ and a gardening scene. And there’s a key use of a wheelbarrow at the end.
Dramatically the cast fire on all diagonals in a concentrated rhomboid – centring on that pavilion. Blocking’s centred, and this OFS cast of regulars and strong newcomers yield to no-one in vocal command and clarity. The wind blusters: they never do. The thwuck of gauntlets hurled down can be heard several streets away.
It’s a long lyric central role, and character-heavy play (just thirteen cast ably sort over fifty, trimmed here) though as Mastoris points out, admiring this production too, it’s straightforward: no subtext. There’s one necessary cut towards the end (the mother-son-father treachery triangle, a black comedy) but amazingly in two hours forty Richard II’s served pretty neat.
Baum’s energy is infectious: he invests kingly dignity with petulance, petulance with pathos and dignity with spite. The way the audience is persuaded to dislike then slowly sympathize with Richard is a masterly study, admittedly at the expense of much action, describing a long dying fall.
To counter this Baum’s quick and repining early on, energetic, capricious, on the dais glittering over Bolingbroke and Mowbray. He snatches lines from his subjects deliberately, impatient of response, is in command of an extremely physical Richard, just as he can pause and show the ceremonial Wilton Diptych blue side of himself.
Baum gets the king’s youth – he wasn’t 33 at his death – and the child of ten who came to the throne, lives in the psychotic majesty of trappings: that Wilton Diptych, introducing forks to the likes of Bolingbroke. Who spills Richard’s anointed oil.
With Ross Gurney-Randall’s first role as Gaunt, Baum’s increasingly scornful and impatient, almost sadistic. Hauteur checked is tyrannous here. This Richard is dangerous and it’s no wonder that after Gurney-Randall’s magisterial remonstrance over his son Bolingbroke, his wearied obedience then earthly deposition of a dying speech, Baum’s Richard snatches his lands like a gleefully nasty child. There’s a homeopathic twitch of John Hurt’s Caligula to RII.
Baum doesn’t milk a long descending arc but sizzles throughout the first three acts. When Drain takes over – and there’s an elegant first ‘abdication’ of that crown in the interval as Baum hands to Drain – there’s a power contained.
Drain too stands regally, delivers a vocal distinctiveness, crosses her habit of command with a new-learned helplessness. Drain too plays the spoilt child snatching back the crown despite her deposition, snatches words back from Bolingbroke and Northumberland, contradicts like the clever weedy boy bullied.
Benjamin Darlington’s Bolingbroke is vigorous quite apart from his gauntlets – a shaft of steel from his throat, to the argent of Baum. A natural, seasoned Shakespearean he takes his role as a warm breathing thing and tempers it in ice.
Darlington’s tread measures Bolingbroke: all is calculated, he admonishes blunt Northumberland by example: don’t snatch by a force that can come back on you – deploy stratagems, sweet persuasion.
What Darlington manages too is to convey martial youth and a hint of sudden care. Embryonic Hal is rightly cut here so though in the full text Shakespeare ages Bolingbroke in a few months so he’s a bit ancient by the play’s end, Darlington still conveys the language is different, haunted, heavier with Richard’s end.
As Edmund Duke of York, the surviving uncle after Gaunt, Chris Gates plays anxious canniness: not naturally disposed to treachery he holds out till he can’t. Gates conveys a crestfallen clarity to Edmund, a havering dismay visible on his face; and a firmer tone to the crisp Lord Marshall, disposer of many things.
There’s sterling support too from the gravelly periodicities of Gurney-Randall’s Gaunt, first lent on a walking-stick, finally delivering from his dressing-gown. There’s a weary asperity where he chides – you can see the force of the man Gaunt has been, not just the lyrical admonitory dying fall of the great set speech.
Gurney-Randall too understands the way Shakespeare places that measure. It’s a piece of dignity, not rising impassioned like some to a nailing peroration, but bitten-off, understanding how mortal it is. His Northumberland is stentorian, harsh, a brusque bully-lord, planting his powers with his feet and faintly flexing them even against Bolingbroke. As peak-capped Keeper (geddit?) he’s pure bully.
Rachel Mullock’s oppo to Bolingbroke, her sinewy Mowbray, is a piece of hurt dignity too, throwing back gauntlets and suggesting a deathly sentence on terminal banishment, her words crushed out of her. Mullock’s a rising OFS newcomer and her physicality in this role is notable, strident, aghast at banishment. As Sir Henry Green she’s a coil of anxiety and nobly-suppressed fright. As Earl of Salisbury, Mullock conveys crushed but persistent loyalty, Richard’s Welsh forces crumbled through her hands.
Even more recent to OFS, Alex Louise continues to impress as Duke of Aumerle – care-sick then defiant where in the second flurry of gauntlets in Act IV, she echoes Mowbray’s gambit. As Welsh Captain she notably dons Welsh vowels and policy with her cap, and as Gardener (basically Head Gardener) in a wonderful scene with real herbal borders, confronted by the Queen, Louise dispatches laconic lowly wisdom and a streak of nobility. Though scorched by the Queen for unwittingly repeating rumours in her hearing, she acts with dignity: orders her two helpers to plant rue where the Queen secreted herself. In this garden, it’s a realised gem.
As tricksy Bishop Carlisle, then blue-donned, direct but here notably loyal Percy, Duke of York, Katey Ann Fraser plants the ambition we see sparking up in Henry IV/I, though mostly dutiful, cleanly delivering insurrection on the winning side. Another seasoned regular, Fraser enjoys the physicality of Hotspur like a sniffer-missile trying to aim at the right feet to pledge loyalty, skidding to a halt. Her Duchess York is empathic; as Louise’s Gardener’s Man she nods and hefts at pruning.
Another recent arrival Ava Dodsworth also impresses – particularly in her main role as luckless Sir John Bushy, conveyed by Bolingbroke (like Green) to the death, muted with fright, flight, a little fight. Bushy’s inherent decency is well to the fore. As the Queen’s Lady, Dodsworth is all sibilance; as Exton’s servant all murder.
Eva Savage makes her debut at OFS rising with character in her role of red-clad Queen, assertive with her king as well as tender, remonstrating with Northumberland, scorning her overheard Gardener. Her clarity lends a tiny measure of light to the worriedly-loyal Sir Stephen Scroop, viciousness to murderer Exton and a blink-and-miss-it politic wariness to Lord Berkeley, subordinate to York.
Jules Craig is a characterful Shakespearean – a memorable Hector in last year’s OFS Troilus and Cressida for instance, and elsewhere. Here she etches roles: first magnificent with the seven vials speech as Duchess of Gloucester pleading with Gaunt for vengeance on her husband’s murder. This is thrilling.
Then as low-born friend of Richard, her Sir John Bagot avoids Bushy and Green’s fate (‘I think me never’ she says of meeting again, striding off) and shrewdly flees to Ireland. When captured, Bagot equally shrewdly turns accusation on Louise’s Aumerle; this scene with Craig vs Louise is almost as strong as the pageantry and extended opening it echoes.
Katarina Henderson’s showing notable qualities: a poise, impressing quietly with small roles. Here she’s a Lady to the Queen, echoing her mistress; and in tiny roles – Groom, irascible Lord Willoughby, annoyed at Richard’s commoner upstarts, and Herald – plants a flag to the periphery of action.
Alissandra Henderson – also the musical arranger yet again, this time with Joanne Rosenfeld – continues strong in her tiny roles: First Herald, First Gardener’s Man where she has a little dialogue with Louise, and Lord Ross, grumpiest, earliest of Bolingbroke’s co-plotters.
One of OFS’s strongest productions, this Richard II’s a return to roots. Splitting roles in zoom lockdown – sometimes as much as one change per act – was a thrilling white-knuckle switchback. We can go back to Monstrous Regiment and Caryl Churchill’s Light Shining in Buckinghamshire in 1976 where actors swapped characters throughout.
Baum and Drain strike an ideal rapport between Richard rampant and Richard Orpheus descending to the dark. Hand on heart I’d still thrill to Baum – or Drain – tackling the role entire. What this production manages is to point up those Richards: Baum trumpeting a magnificent vocal spending; Drain essaying a quicksilver, quixotic reading out front and fresh.
Whilst each takes the title role, the other’s on drums. Again Rosenfeld and Henderson’s musical interludes dovetail: their ominous percussive ceremonial is a stark foil to the play’s soaring lyricism.
King Richard II CONOR BAUM and SHARON DRAIN
Henry Bolingbroke, later King Henry IV BENJAMIN DARLINGTON
Edmund, Duke of York/ Lord Marshal CHRIS GATES
John of Gaunt/ Earl of Northumberland/ Keeper ROSS GURNEY-RANDALL
Thomas Mowbray/ Sir Henry Green/ Earl of Salisbury RACHEL MULLOCK
Duke of Aumerle/ Gardener/ Welsh Captain ALEX LOUISE
Bishop Carlisle/ H. Percy/ Duchess York/Gardeners Man KATEY ANN FRASER
Sir John Bushy/ Exton’s Servant/ Lady AVA DODSWORTH
Sir Stephen Scroop/ Queen/ Sir Exton/ Lord Berkeley EVA SAVAGE
Sir John Bagot/ Duchess of Gloucester/ Exton’s Servant JULES CRAIG
Lady/ Groom/ Willoughby/ Herald KATARINA HENDERSON
1st Herald/ 1st Gardeners Man/ Lord Ross ALISSANDRA HENDERSON