mon 16/09/2019

Globe to Globe: Richard II, Shakespeare's Globe | reviews, news & interviews

Globe to Globe: Richard II, Shakespeare's Globe

Globe to Globe: Richard II, Shakespeare's Globe

A play whose relevance to now is expressed with eloquence and brio

Semi Metwasi as the tantrum-prone, emotionally labile Richard II

Mention that a Palestinian theatre company are performing Richard II and the play’s  themes are immediately thrown into sharp relief: usurpation, homeland and banishment, and the idea of a literally God-given mandate to rule amongst a resistant people. It is the hope of great art that it brings peoples and nations together, but not at the expense of highlighting issues that tear them asunder.

And such controversies haven’t been confined to the play: Mark Rylance, the Globe’s former artistic director, was among a number of signatories to an open letter calling for the boycott of Habima, the Israeli theatre company who are also performing at Globe to Globe. It was an appeal backed by Ashtar, the Ramallah-based ensemble performing Richard II. The Globe has, understandably, tried to deflect concerns with a statement that the festival “is a celebration of languages” and not “a celebration of nations or states”. So Habima will still be going ahead with its production of The Merchant of Venice – oh my – later this month.

It’s what the actors wear and brandish that has to speak volumes in terms of contemporary resonance

Of course, Richard II’s themes are timeless and not geographically fixed – the History plays would hardly continue to be performed if contemporary parallels couldn’t be drawn. For Ashtar, and for the production’s Irish director Connall Morrison, it’s what the actors wear and brandish in this sparse staging that has to speak volumes in terms of contemporary resonance, since, for the majority of the audience, the language –  in modern Arabic – cannot speak to them at all.  And so we have political assassins with bandana-masked faces cutting the throats of their hostages; and on two occasions the action is punctuated by the similarly masked brandishing huge flags, their movements choreographed to a burst of Middle-Eastern music.  

Sami Metwasi as Richard IIIndeed, the play opens with the on-stage killing of a blind-folded Gloucester, who emerges, stumbling, through a trapdoor. As with each of the murders in the play, Gloucester's face is blooded after the deed, as the assassin squirts stage blood over his victim’s face. The ostentatious act suggests, in fact, urination, that ritual humiliation conducted by hot-headed men who wish to defile as well as slaughter. As if to bear witness, the blooded victim then rises up like a bewildered spectre, to remain on stage until the next scene. And both Semi Metwasi’s effeminate and emotionally labile Richard (main picture and right) and Nichola Zreineh’s ruggedly down-to-earth Bolingbroke sport military attire – it can’t go unnoted that Zreineh’s future Henry IV looks a bit like Saddam Hussein in his cocked red beret.

Asthar offers a fairly pacy production. Stripped of its native tongue, and with only the surtitles to direct you for plot, the play’s moral complexities are more sharply defined. And it’s not all hair-pullingly grim – even in the face of Richard’s impending doom, there is humour to be mined. The way Richard places his crown wonkily on his usurper’s head certainly gets a laugh.

However, there are inevitable frustrations, too, in a production that still remains fairly physically static. I was longing for the interval to come a little sooner than it did (the second half is very short). But I was also deeply moved by a play whose relevance to now is not always easy to detect, but which is here expressed with such eloquence and brio. 

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