I had a whole (late) post written up yesterday about Yohangza’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and how it was my favourite play of the Globe to Globe festival by a mile, but then Ashtar Theatre’s Richard II came along and blew Yohangza out of the water.
Photo (c) Rajha Shakiry
I may be a bit biased because I love the histories, but I’m pretty sure this is an incredible production no matter how you feel about Shakespeare’s “King Name + Number” plays. Although Richard II has never been one of my favourites in that sub-category, it’s slowly creeping up the leaderboard the more time I spend with it. Ashtar’s production starts with a depiction of the murder of the Duke of Gloucester, King Richard’s uncle, which kicks off the problems in the play. Gloucester has been kidnapped by a terrorist cell, and his masked jailers pull him, blindfolded, out of an underground prison and offer him a razor and mirror to shave with; after a few seconds one stands up and cut his throat with the blade. The deaths in the play are gruesome yet stagey: they’re enacted with realistic struggles, but no blood. After the victims are dead, their killers step over them and squeeze stage blood onto their faces. The dead characters reach up confusedly to smear the blood onto their faces, then stand and watch the first part of the next scene, disbelieving, as if they don’t quite understand what’s just happened to them.
Immediately after Gloucester’s murder Richard arrives on stage smiling, waving and leaning down to shake hands with the groundlings. He then turns around and quickly wipes his hands on a handkerchief, which he hands to an aide.
Sami Metwasi is just absolutely fucking incredible as Richard. Charismatic, petulant, arrogant, flirtatious, commanding, magnetic, grandstanding, vulnerable – he nails every shading, beat, overtone and undertone of Richard’s arc. He is never anything less than totally compelling (I usually get fed up with Richard about halfway through Act Three). Metwasi’s Richard is a contradiction of knowing and immaturity: he stamps his foot impatiently when Bolingbroke’s terms are offered, yet when it comes time to actually surrender the crown, he is cool, confident and completely in control.
One of my favourite moments of Metwasi’s performance comes when he finally hands the crown to Bolingbroke. As Richard continues to speak, he keeps hold of one side, so the crown is suspended between him and Bolingbroke as each pulls it towards himself. Richard says something self-deprecating, looks down and laughs, then whips the crown towards himself and quickly steps around Bolingbroke, catching him on the wrong foot and forcing him to stumble into an awkward place-change. Richard smiles elegantly, having never lost his poise. It is the perfect encapsulation of Richard’s character in one smooth two-second motion: even when he knows he’s on his way down, he still knows how to stage-manage a brilliant performance.
Bolingbroke (Nicola Zreineh) is a solid, ominous presence. He’s alert, constantly on guard even after becoming king, standing still and staring down his friends and enemies alike. In the first act you get the impression he isn’t much daunted by his banishment: it’s possible he immediately sees it as an opportunity to seize power from Richard, rather than only deciding to invade once his hereditary rights are stripped from him. (Metwasi plays Richard’s early scenes as he decides to raise taxes and nick the Lancaster lands with brilliant desperate flippancy, as a louche, handsome Scotch-drinking Bushy and middle-management yes-men Bagot and Greene egg him on.)
Although both actors are Arab, Metwasi is a bit more European-looking than Zreineh, and I wondered if there was something going on about (relatively) ‘grassroots’ governments replacing overseas-supported top-down ones in several Arab countries over the past year or so. My other favourite moment of the production is when Richard was told of Bolingbroke’s popularity among the people. Protestors of all genders, faces covered in scarves, masks and sunglasses straight out of the Arab Spring uprisings, burst into the Globe courtyard from all sides, waving green and white flags and shouting “The people want Bolingbroke!”.
Other standouts include Hussein Nakhleh’s performance as John of Gaunt, as with Richard the only time I’ve really liked the guy: he was quiet, empathetic and trying to play honestly by the rules at Richard’s court, without understanding it was set up so there was no way for him to win. As Chanel-clad Queen Isabel, perhaps a reflection of Asma Assad, Bayan Shbib has a touch of her husband’s arrogance with a deeper shading of vulnerability. She has exactly the same at risk, but much less control over her situation, as her husband. The scene in which she waits for Richard on his way to prison, both knowing he’ll never come out again, is the most emotionally raw we ever see either of them – a reminder that (without getting too “boo hoo poor privileged people”) those kinds of inherited, involuntary rulerships don’t come with exit doors, except one.
Richard’s murder was graphic and brutal, as his murderer (here Ross) attacked him with a knife as his hands were bound. Richard managed to briefly choke Ross and get the knife, but Ross closed his arms around him from behind and forced Richard to drive the knife into his own stomach. As with the other deaths, the actor for the next scene immediately entered: Bolingbroke, who carried a second bottle of stage blood and dripped it onto Richard’s face as well, clearly implying that his offhand “Will no one rid me of this troublesome ex-king?” had been calculated and intentional.
The director cut out Aumerle’s plot against the new king and the York family comedy at the end, which makes sense (even if it is very funny). It was an extremely tight production, coming in just under two and a half hours and keeping the focus on Richard, Bolingbroke and government. The final scene in Henry’s court with his long-time supporters, Northumberland and Harry Percy, was played as Richard and his murdered jailer sat on the edge of the stage, blood dripping down their faces, and looked out into the audience. Richard was later heaved up by the back of his jacket to display his body to Henry.
Henry’s final announcement that he would make a crusade to the “Holy Land” to atone for his ordering Richard’s murder – as if northern Europeans stomping all over Palestine murdering its inhabitants were a holy act, rather than an incredible, ongoing act of wrongdoing – hit deeply home. I’d completely forgotten the play ends that way, and performed by Palestinian actors who know better than anyone else the shitty consequences of European religious obsession with their homeland, it was horrifying.
After yesterday’s matinee, there was a discussion with the artistic director (I think; she also played the Duchess of Gloucester and one of the gardeners) about theatre in occupied spaces. I would have loved to go to afterwards, but Shabbat was starting and I had to get to shul. If anyone went, I’d love to hear about it.
I’m so glad that I decided to take the afternoon of work to see it yesterday, and I’m especially glad that there’s still another performance on that I can urge you to see. Tonight! At 7:30! If there are still tickets (and I really hope it’s sold out, it deserves to be), go!
I saw Globe to Globe’s Richard II at Shakespeare’s Globe on May 4, 2012.