Richard II, Ashtar Theatre; 5th May 2012
What now is the global significance of Richard II? The play has been many things to many people: a hymn to the divine right of kings; an exploration of what it means to be mortal; fuel to those about to attempt a coup. Inevitably tonight the last of those looms largest.
The Palestinian company Ashtar Theatre is based in Ramallah, in the West Bank. This company has daily experience of performing and rehearsing (or trying to rehearse) under occupation. Their tale of the toppling of a dictator throws up countless echoes of life beyond the walls of the theatre.
It begins like a nightmare; an elderly man, who we are told is Gloucester, is brought out of his prison in the earth. He checks his face for deeper wrinkles; he’s offered water by his hooded captors. He is allowed to shave. They slit his throat with his own razor.
Richard (a detailed, witty performance from Sammi Metwasi) enters, shakes hands with the front row, then wipes his hand with a handkerchief, an item which Richard is sometimes credited with inventing. Richard II is often overlaid by lazy reverence for the semi-divine job of kingship, and in this country it would be almost impossible to find a production that so completely eschewed religious feeling like Ashtar’s did. There are no candles, no incense, no singing; it’s hardly like the 1980s RSC at all. There’s little debate about the king’s two bodies; Metwasi seems happy enough in one. He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy. Neither divine, nor right
In place of religion we get factionalism and family. In Ramallah I once bought a book of Arabic sayings illustrated with cartoons. It’s called The Son of a Duck is a Floater; the English equivalent is ‘Like Father, Like Son’. By the end of this evening I thought an idomatic translation should be closer to “Blood is Thicker than Water.” Because family matters in these family matters.
In staging the factions, some people always wear uniform (Bolingbroke, Percy), some always wear suits (Gaunt, York), and some, like Richard, switch. Metwasi’s Richard looks much more comfortable in civvies – and looks sharper. As soon as he can he removes his tie, and Greene gives him a mirror to check his reflection. For his visit to the dying Gaunt he puts on another, even brighter tie – the opposite of mourning. He’s moody and mercurial; when York (a nuanced, funny George Ibrahim) gives him both barrels after Richard confiscates Gaunt’s estate, Richard whistles and checks his wife’s nails while he holds her hand against his cheek.
The Globe’s painted stage isn’t particularly helpful, except to make the dictator’s palace look gaudy – the theatrical equivalent of Donald Trump’s malachite hand-basins. But on it the play sounds great; a muscular, mouth-filling meal. Though the performance was advertised as being in Palestinian Arabic, I’m told by an Arabist friend that the translation was pretty much classical – apart from one extraordinary scene. The Welsh Captain’s news that his men have left the tardy Richard and allied with Bolingbroke is usually taken as a sad blow to the king’s fortunes; here it was flipped on its head. A few lines of Salisbury’s testimony from act 3 scene 2 were shifted backwards; after the Captain’s catalogue of ominous signs, the surtitles told us ‘The people are crying out for Bolingbroke’ and suddenly the outside world came banging in: the stage was filled with people shouting slogans (these were in Palestinian Arabic), an unmistakeable Arab Spring uprising full of bloodstained flags and screamed revolt against the absent king.
In whose name is power exercised? The women’s lamentation, in headscarves and in black, is powerful, clamorous, going upwards into the clouds. It reminds us of countless others we’ve seen on the news where beloved sons or husbands have been lost to terror. This was one of the few times I’ve been pleased that the Globe has no roof; another was in the deposition scene, when a helicopter flew over just as Richard said ‘here cousin, seize the crown’ and he and Bolingbroke paused to watch it pass.
This is a play in which the word ‘earth’ occurs twenty-nine times, and ‘ground’ another twelve, and they both have prominent parts in some pretty famous speeches. In Ashtar’s version this connection is implied, not stated. It’s there in the rooted connection with the stage that the best actors have. It’s there in the fine stillness of the actresses. And it’s highlighted by its absence in the King. He claims a special relationship to the dust of the country, but it’s just talk. On his return from Ireland, greeting his estranged daughter England from whom he’s been absent too long, Richard pats the stage, proprietary but patronising. He doesn’t speak for the trees. He’s out of touch.
Irish director Conall Morrison has made many helpful decisions. His production is not deep or especially complex, but it’s clear, fast and muscular. There’s a recurring motif of someone sprinkling blood on a murdered character’s eyes; they wake and become a witness to what follows. It’s an idea which brings home just how much spying and how many murders there are in this extremely bloody play. It also subtly reinforces the political significance of this particular production. When Bolingbroke, in the play’s final speech, promises to wash the blood from his guilty hand by making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, the audience’s laughter is bitter and plentiful. Nicola Zreineh said in a post-performance discussion that while his character could plan to go to Jerusalem, over 2000 miles from London, as a Palestinian living in Bethlehem, he was unable to visit a city only six miles away.
Actor and Director