a very entertaining experience. It's worth seeing on its artistic merit alone
Richard II | Review
Sean Godecke | AU Review
24 Sep, 2014
If you’re familiar with Mark Wilson’s last Shakespeare production – Unsex Me, which drew controversy for its avant-garde take on Lady Macbeth – you might be expecting a sexually confronting or generally weird performance. Don’t worry, though. For a production with a cast of two and a decidedly irreverent bent, Wilson’s take on Richard II is surprisingly faithful to the themes of the original Shakespeare. Wilson and his co-star, Olivia Monticciolo, deliver an adaptation of Richard II that tries to highlight the play’s relevance to current Australian politics.
Here’s a quick summary of the original plot of Richard II. The play begins with King Richard arbitrating a dispute between two nobles, Mowbray and Henry Bolingbroke. He ends up banishing them both: Mowbray for life, and Henry for six years. Henry returns at the head of an army to depose Richard and seize the crown for himself. Languishing in a dungeon, Richard is killed at the end of the play by one of Henry’s supporters. The meat of the play is in the difference between Richard and Henry. Richard is an old-fashioned king who believes in his own divine right, while Henry is a populist who tries to rule with the consent of his people. Shakespeare asks his audience to consider which approach makes for a better leader.
Wilson’s adaption pares the play back to its bare bones. He plays Richard, a narcissistic celebrity King of England. Monticciolo plays Henry, his poll-driven, policy-wonk deputy. Despite the royal trappings and the “King of England” thing, the play is set in Australia. Wilson plays this inconsistency for laughs – when Henry deposes Richard, she declares herself “Australia’s first female King of England”. There’s no swapping of costumes or confusing role changes. For the vast majority of the play, Wilson and Monticciolo are playing the same characters.
Wilson’s production includes some speeches taken from the original play, but the Shakespearean language is presented as deliberately artificial: the language Richard unwillingly uses in his speeches to the country, or the formal address Henry is forced by tradition to use when addressing the throne. For the most part, the play is relentlessly modern. Wilson draws a parallel between the politics of Shakespeare’s historical plays and the politics of our own day. As we watch Richard II get deposed by the more careful, less kingly Henry, Wilson explicitly invites us to remember the transition from John Howard to Kevin Rudd to Julia Gillard. The big question of the play – what makes a good leader – resonates throughout. Does a good leader have a strong personality or a vision that unites the people? Or does a good leader check the polls and try to be responsive to the people’s needs?
The play is strongest when addressing that question directly. Wilson and Monticciolo do an amazing job inhabiting their archetypes: Wilson as the arrogant, manly Richard and Monticciolo as the driven, progressive Henry. The relevance of religion and gender to this dichotomy is explored throughout the play in a nuanced way. Be aware that in some scenes Richard angrily abuses Henry with sexist slurs. Wilson does a good enough job that those scenes can be quite uncomfortable to watch.
Some of the attempts to bring in recent Australian politics felt a little forced. In one scene, Henry encounters a literal “faceless man”. The scene is highly dramatic and tense, but doesn’t fit well with the overall plot. Even more bizarrely, another scene has Henry get a striptease from Wilson, who is dressed up as a gross caricature of Julia Gillard: complete with exaggerated curves and a beak-like fake nose as large as his head. With this scene, Wilson invites accusations of poor taste – especially since the striptease scene bears little relevance to either the plot or themes of the play.
The final section of the play devolves into self-commentary. Wilson and Monticciolo abandon their characters and refer to each other by their real names. Monticciolo brings Wilson a cup of tea and a biscuit, and he harangues the audience about the need for a strong leader. While this does help to make the purpose of the play explicit, it’s also a little self-indulgent. However, Wilson sticks the landing. The play ends with a speech from Shakespeare’s Henry V that bears strong resemblance to the warlike rhetoric of Tony Abbott. To make the comparison extra clear, Wilson dresses as a boxer before delivering it, but there’s no real need. With the context of the rest of the play, the message is clear: ‘strong leaders’ are charismatic and attractive, but their vision often has more to do with arrogance than the best interests of the country.
Ironically, despite the peculiarities of Wilson’s adaptation, the thrust of the play is not shocking or confronting at all. His audience at the Northcote Town Hall are mostly left-wing types who distrust charismatic leaders and have no love for warlike rhetoric. If you’re the kind of person who would go to see a Fringe Festival play by Mark Wilson, you’re probably the kind of person who would walk out of Richard II with your views comfortably affirmed. That said, Richard II is an ambitious project that’s largely successful, and a very entertaining experience. It’s worth seeing on its artistic merit alone.