Edinburgh Fringe 2019
Puppet King Richard II has the feel of two old thesps playing make-believe. There is a decidedly hand-made feel to the design, and many of the puppets are made from apparently found objects. It is charming, witty and nicely performed with a tender poignancy, and a nice riff on the power dynamic between the actors.
Riddle’s Court feels a fitting venue for this puppety telling of Richard II, as we are led up a stone spiral staircase that wouldn’t be out of place in The Tower that our our King is destined for.
Lucas Augustine is playing some courtly guitar as we take our seats. It’s a tiny room laid out in thrust. A choice that seems strange at first, as we turn our heads to view the stage and puppet theatre, but that makes sense later.
Gregory Gudgeon, dressed as Richard, sits with his legs under the playing space of the puppet theatre, his feet and the front of the stage covered with an England flag. He is resplendent in purple in a somewhat time-wasted way, and on his head sits a fragile-looking crown.
The action begins with glove puppets, their knobbly faces made of balls of wool.
Gudgeon is very much in leading man mode, Augustine his side-kick stage manager, catching the sharpness of the boss’s tongue when he miss-throws something. But of course, Richard II is about shifting power, and this dynamic shifts subtley between the actors as well as their characters, as the story progresses and Augustine assumes the role of Henry (‘Arry) Bolingbroke.
The whole piece has the feel of two old thesps playing make-believe, yet made serious by the beauty and density of the text. There is a decidedly hand-made feel to Willi Kerr’s design, and many of the puppets are made (by Jitka Davidkova & Brigitte Dörner) from apparently found objects – wooden spoons, a clothes-hanger, a shoe tree, and the ubiquitous gloves. Gloves that challenge each other to battle by the throwing of – yes – gloves. Later there are larger hand-carved versions of some of the characters.
It is charming.
The slip-ups are remarked upon, the audience (or Richard’s ‘people’) involved, the swan-neck lights adjusted for different scenes. And it is against this staging that the performances are counterpointed. At times rumbustious and boyish (not least in a Battle of Britain-like scene) at others poignant. Director Linda Marlowe has created just the right balance here.
Gudgeon in particular traverses numerous accents as he voices his characters, slipping quickly between them and packing in the text. And when he slows to voice the darker moments of the play – to “sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings” – the playful nature of what has gone before only adds to his pathos.
Augustine embodies growing power as Henry comes into ascendence. His stage manger persona becomes more critical of Gudgeon too.
Music continues to add to the mood, most successfully when played live on guitar (the recorded singing perhaps taking us a little out of the moment). As Richard says, music played for us is “a sign of love; and love to Richard is a strange brooch in this all-hating world”.
Richard II reminds us of the fragility of leaders, of betrayal and the shift in loyalties that happen when a ruler’s misdeeds come home to roost. Pertinent themes for today.
If you are looking for an accurate rendition of Shakespeare’s play, or for a slickly delivered piece of puppet theatre, this might not be the show for you. But if you are attracted to something touching and exciting, made from charm and wit and – dare I say? – love, this show will not waste your time.
Puppet King Richard II runs at Riddles’ Court, PQA venues, until 14 August