November 19, 2006, by Peter Kirwan

Richard II (Berliner Ensemble) @ The Courtyard Theatre

Perhaps this shouldn’t have come as a surprise, considering the reception of the stark German-language production of ‘Othello’ at the start of the Festival, but I was very disappointed to enter the Courtyard last night and see so many empty seats. Despite just four performances, and despite the rearrangement of the theatre into an apron stage, taking the auditorium down to about half capacity, i was still sitting alone in a row of the Circle, and there can scarcely have been more than a few hundred people in tonight.

Theatre of the kind the Berliner Ensemble produce is something of a love-it-or-hate-it institution in Britain, and I can certainly see why this production wouldn’t have been to everyone’s taste. Severe lighting and a strictly black and white colour scheme (broken only by the Gardener’s orange stockings), actors with powdered white faces and a slightly disconnected acting style, coupled with being in another language, meant that it wasn’t the easiest production to watch. However, for those more used to this kind of thing (my drama teachers were always Brecht obsessives), there were treasures within.

The setting was an abstract 30s one, with gunfire and hard hats during the war and lounge suits and snooker tables in Richard’s decadent court. The intruding Bolingbroke faction wore black trenchcoats and hats in contrast to the white of Richard and his supporters. Boiling the play down to its bare bones, the effect was to distil a poetical history into a plot-driven tragedy, with enemies clearly drawn and a pacey narrative.

The stage itself became a major player in the slow decline of Britain. From the dumping of soil over the shiny white surface by the gardeners at the end of Act One, the stage gradually started to fill with the debris of the revolution, dirtied with mud, graffiti, broken pool tables, wheelbarrows, gauntlets, flowers, pieces of wall and ultimately the body of Richard himself, flies buzzing around it. The whiteness of Richard’s reign became gradually more obscured by the muddy darkness of Bolingbroke (who sat uncomfortably on the thin throne and held the crown uncomfortably alongside his trilby).

A detached humour underscored the play, brought out in Isabel’s repeated fainting, the physical comedy of the Gardeners (here very much clowns), Richard’s sarcasm and the petty squabble of the York family in the final act. The humour relieved the tragedy of Richard’s decline- as in Brecht’s theatre, this was a play to watch and observe, rather than to emotionally engage with.

I liked it. Visually and design-wise this was a very interesting production, the acting was more than adequate (no performances stood out enormously, though Michael Maertens was very enjoyable as a Richard juggling irresponsibility and humour with a deep level of self-reflection), and it’s certainly a production that will remain in the mind, if not in the heart.

Posted in Theatre review