In a year when all-powerful quasi-monarchs are being forced off their thrones, what play can possibly be more topical than Richard II? Bristol is some distance away from Tunis and Cairo, but Shakespeare's story of power politics and abdication has never seemed more up to date than in this superb production. The young and little-known John Heffernan's performance as Richard will, if there's any justice in the world of theatre, propel him immediately into the top ranks of British acting talent. I've seen a range of great actors play Richard, including Ralph Fiennes, Jonathan Slinger and Kevin Spacey, but Heffernan's performance in the intimate space of the Tobacco Factory is quite extraordinary.
A gangly figure with a ginger beard, he lounges on his throne in peacock attire, a monarch of volatile temper, who is fragile, egotistical and self-obsessed. I kept thinking about Heffernan's resemblance to the doomed Nicholas II, the last Tsar of Russia, though 'Nicky' was a dullard who lacked the intelligence of Shakespeare's character. There are flashes of dry humour in the way Richard runs verbal rings around his increasingly frustrated adversary Henry Bullingbrooke. Richard wins the scenes, but Bullingbrooke wins the play, and I have never seen the conflict between them better portrayed. Heffernan's Richard is set apart from the rest of the characters, being dressed in silk robes while all the others are in dowdy grey and black woollens. Arrogant, inconsistent and imperious, he knows that part of being a monarch is the ability to act a part. When he spits after the departing John of Gaunt, or taps his crown with his sceptre, the gesture is meant to be seen. Stretched full length on the ground on his return from Ireland, he theatrically embraces English soil. But when he discovers all his supporters have melted away, he crumbles into a state of collapse, his identity in tatters. In many productions, Richard's readiness to throw in the towel and abdicate before his rival has even challenged him looks implausible, but not in this one. It's totally consistent with his capricious personality.
This was my first trip to Bristol to see the spring season of Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory, now in its twelfth year under the leadership of director Andrew Hilton, who has forged it into an excellent semi-repertory company with no public subsidy. The theatre itself is an industrial rectangular space, very like the Menier Chocolate Factory or the Arcola, and for this production the audience is seated on all four sides. Some proscenium arch devotees who don't like theatre in the round may complain that they sometimes have to see the back of the actors' heads, but for me the closeness to the acting area just makes the play more exciting. Scenery and props are kept to an ideal minimum, and the restricted space gives the action of the play both intimacy and tension, with none of the operatic stage effects which have accompanied some recent RSC productions. Heffernan's astonishing performance is no fluke; he's been on stage with the RSC and at the National, both in Major Barbara and The Habit of Art, but this is his breakthrough major role. Like Simon Russell Beale, he's an actor who applies ferocious intelligence to the search for meaning in every line. He's backed up by an outstanding ensemble, with the veteran Benjamin Whitrow as John of Gaunt, and Matthew Thomas as Bullingbrooke (a restoration of the original Shakespearean spelling which seems quite sensible). This is a play of pure politics, without the broad popular canvas of Henry IV and Henry V, and without a Falstaff to lighten the tone. But there is comedy there if you look for it, especially in the potentially awkward subplot at the end of the play involving a conspiracy by the Duke of Aumerle to kill the new King Henry. This is a sequence of scenes which has always left me scratching my head, but in this production it makes perfect sense.
If London theatre producers have any sense, they will be hot-footing it to Bristol to see this production with a view to bringing it to the wider audience it deserves. The National Theatre has found space for plays from Newcastle and Northampton in the last two or three years -- perhaps it should now be Bristol's turn.