Matt Wolff, writing on the Guardian website, has a 'star-is-born' piece about Jonathan Slinger's performances as Richard II and Richard III in the Royal Shakespeare Company's Histories season at the Roundhouse. His comparison of Slinger to Simon Russell Beale, another actor who manages to mesmerise audiences without being physically imposing, seems spot on. As Richard II, Slinger starts off as a painted icon, white-faced and with a ginger wig modelled on famous portraits of Elizabeth I. Director Michael Boyd cleverly emphasises the fact that of all Shakespeare's history plays, this is the one that carried the sharpest messages about Elizabethan court politics. The play begins with the court dancing a minuet in late 16th century costume, complete with ruffs. Richard, camp as a row of tents, is an absurd figure in purely human terms, but he is stamped by a kingly authority that comes from God and sets him apart from the nobles who bow and scrape before him with varying degrees of sincerity -- very little in the case of the thuggish Bolingbroke (Clive Wood). The key scene of the play is the one where Richard renounces the throne to Bolingbroke before the usurper demands it; it's a subtle piece of writing which shows how Shakespeare had moved beyond the bare-knuckle confrontation scenes of his Henry VI trilogy into an exploration of the psychology of kingship. Richard pre-empts Bolingbroke by his abdication, which takes on the character of a liberating voluntary act rather than something forced on him from outside. In the mirror scene which follows, Jonathan Slinger rips off his ginger wig and wipes the white pancake off his face, and suddenly becomes a man rather than a king. Slinger tones down the camp, changes his voice and is transformed into a more human and more sympathetic character. It's a wonderful performance; he's compulsively watchable because he has the knack of taking the audience by surprise. By the end of the play the Elizabethan ruffs and doublets have disappeared to be replaced by the grim black costumes of Bolingbroke and his team of gangsters. Sacks with severed heads are piled up at the new king's feet and the bloody corpse of Richard is dragged around the stage in a semicircle to frame the royal throne, foreshadowing the civil wars that will follow. Although this is historically the first play in the cycle, it's the one I saw last, and I found it illuminated by the other plays I had already seen. It's the coherence of the whole that makes this cycle such a great achievement for the RSC, but the coherence doesn't mean that a single pattern is imposed on every play. Michael Boyd has brilliantly highlighted the individual themes while not sacrificing his overall vision.
Having spent so much money on revamping the Roundhouse with a new stage and new seating, the RSC should be making plans for another Roundhouse season. I do hope so. I spent £220 on a total of 13 tickets for these plays, and I have to say I haven't had such good value in the theatre for a very long time. I sat in a variety of seats and they were all excellent. This is the London venue that the RSC has been looking for ever since Boyd's predecessor Adrian Noble took them away from the Barbican six years ago.