Tobacco Factory Theatre, until March 19
By Sophia Lomax
If you know what’s good for you, as my mum would say, you’ll be off to see Richard II at the Tobacco Factory theatre before the few remaining tickets get snaffled.
Why? Because this production, from Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory, is simply mesmeric. You wouldn’t think it possible, judging from the slender plot — the quiet toppling of an autocratic king at the hands of his exiled cousin — but a potent combination of royal vacillations and double-crossing at every turn creates an astonishingly gripping psychological thriller.
Shakespeare’s history play has its roots in genuine fact, but hoary classroom history lesson it ain’t: after the king banishes his cousin, Henry Bolinbroke, and seizes his estates, Bolingbroke plots a vengeful return to England. It’s accomplished, off-stage, with ease, as he literally takes the throne from the hands of Richard and is crowned Henry IV, more or less sending Richard to his death by incarcerating him in Pontefract castle.
The stage is stuffed with actors of stature, with even minor parts played with seasoned aplomb. John Heffernan’s Richard II is bewitching: nervy, feline and indisputably royal. And Oliver Millingham, as a young, sweet Aumerle, somehow defies probability to remain a luck-strewn Mummy’s boy in the face of all evidence that he’s perpetually up to no good behind the medieval bike sheds.
Benjamin Whitrow, too, segues so seamlessly into the play’s often-paraphrased ‘This England’ speech, as proud old John of Gaunt, that the words seem just that moment dreamed up by him, and thereafter quoted endlessly by everyone, from prime ministers to schoolchildren living in this ‘sceptered isle’.
What initially seems to be the Emperor’s New Set — just a couple of pieces of moveable furniture and a few pillars — has a spare, lingering beauty matched by some lovely period costume that renders the characters solidly convincing, for which praise must go to designer Harriet de Winton.
Hands up, I did initially – at the play’s opening skirmish between Bolingbroke and Thomas Mowbray, who stands accused by Bolingbroke of treason — mistake the gentle slap-slap of gauntlets thrown down elegantly in challenge for a slow start. How silly, because moments later an avalanche of mind-games pulled a packed audience into the play’s torrent of motives, counter-accusations and treachery, leaving everyone wreathed in admiration for Shakespeare’s intricate psychological dance.