Richard II

Patrick Moy as King Richard II in Ouroboros' new production at the Peacock Theatre. Photo: Monika Chmielarz

Patrick Moy as King Richard II in Ouroboros' new production at the Peacock Theatre. Photo: Monika Chmielarz

Denis Conway and Des Nealon in Ouroboros' 'Richard II' at the Peacock Theatre. Photo: Monika Chmielarz

Denis Conway and Des Nealon in Ouroboros' 'Richard II' at the Peacock Theatre. Photo: Monika Chmielarz

Frank McCusker and Rachael Dowling in Ouroboros' 'Richard II'. Photo: Monika Chmielarz

Frank McCusker and Rachael Dowling in Ouroboros' 'Richard II'. Photo: Monika Chmielarz

Shakespeare didn’t really write about Ireland. It features in Richard II, yes, and there it serves a measure of narrative and contextual function. It’s a kind of tipping point in the fate of the King (Patrick Moy). Having failed to successfully mediate in a domestic dispute between his cousin Bolingbroke (Frank McCusker) and Lord Mowbray (Jonathan White), who are accusing one another of treason, Richard alights to Ireland to fight an expensive war to show the local peasants who’s boss, ignoring an obviously bigger problem. While he’s away, his exiled cousin mounts an army and invades, paving his way to becoming King Henry IV.

Photo: Monika ChmielarzSo, yes, the Emerald Isle features in the play featuring Shakespeare’s paen to the ‘sceptred isle’. But one might do well to listen fully to the speech in which John of Gaunt (Des Nealon) speaks these jingoistic words, because he also concludes that "this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England" is currently bound in by shame, inky blots, and rotten parchment. That Ireland plays a signifying role in representing the disorder of England’s sense of value is interesting. Whether this needs to be magnified is another question.

There is something of a surfeit of signifiers in this production, which freely mixes props, costumes, d├ęcor, and music from different historical periods to reinforce the presence of Ireland and Irish history on an iconographical level. The set initially presents as a museum of some kind, with glass exhibit cases and framed artifacts with Irish connections, not least of all a framed copy of the 1916 Proclamation. The accents of the characters also float pretty freely across the British Isles. In the end, much of this seems unnecessary (if not even downright unhelpful) by way of making Shakespeare ‘relevant’ to contemporary Ireland. Certainly the degree to which the imagery evolves (clothing spans the twentieth-century and upgrades as it goes, culminating in a contemporary suit for the ultimate ‘suit’ that is Henry IV: weapons vary from swords to shivs, carbines to AK-47s) doesn’t correspond in any way with anything going on in the text, and it all becomes a bit metatheatrical.

Photo: Monika ChmielarzOtherwise Ouroboros Theatre’s presentation of Richard II is very gripping. The storytelling is superb. The performances are sometimes quite brilliant. Moy hovers on the edge of camp but doesn’t cross over in playing the fey, feckless Richard. Essentially Richard is a sympathetic and tragic figure: foolish and misguided by flatterers, but not without feeling or intelligence. He lacks manly decisiveness, sure, but he is not a villain. To play him as a silly wimp would be to lose a substantial chunk of the dramatic heart of this play, and Moy does not do so. His vocal modulations are subtly controlled rather than borderline hysterical, presenting the voice of man given to pronouncements but uncertain of their reception, hence hedging his bets and capable of spilling quickly over into anger. Likewise Moy’s facial expressions are not a collection of tiresome superior smirks or bored yawns, but mix a kind of wide-eyed fascination with genuine vulnerability – the expressions of a man watching in mild disbelief but great interest and again capable of snapping into action on what may seem a whim or may be an assertion of power. It’s a mesmerising turn. 

Nealon also commands attention as John of Gaunt, and McCusker certainly dominates the stage with a lot of good old-fashioned British shouting that makes him every inch the macho no-nonsense Henry you expect in this drama of displacement. Richard’s ‘divine’ right to rule is tested and found wanting, and his successor is all ‘business’, so to speak (hence the suit at the end). McCusker conveys this in a commanding way, but really does use his voice for sheer power quite a bit. Ouroboros’ artistic director Denis Conway does a fair bit of shouting too, and this can be occasionally a little much in the confined space of the Peacock. But all of this seems quite apt, and the play never loses its dramatic grip on this level.

The play has been beautifully mounted on a technical level. Joe Vanek’s set is impressively flexible, with movable walls and a dias that doubles as a pit for Richard’s prison (which, in probably the most problematic imagistic imposition, becomes the site of a blanket man ‘dirty protest’). Kevin McFadden’s lighting is excellent, maintaining atmosphere but also assisting with narrative clarity.

Michael Barker-Caven directs also with clarity and is to be credited with the tangible sense of human drama to the fore here. But there is a lot of metaphoric clutter, stemming, as noted, from an over-reaching for direct interconnection between the text and the context of its staging in Ireland in 2013. Shakespeare was someone that could speak for himself, and he didn’t really have much to say about Ireland, which is not to say that any tale of treachery, corruption, power, duty, and divine right isn’t meaningful to an Irish audience, with or without the Proclamation on the wall.

Harvey O’Brien is a writer and critic, and lectures in Film Studies at University College Dublin. His latest book is Action Movies: The Cinema of Striking Back (Nov, 2012).

  • Review
  • Theatre

Richard II by William Shakespeare

23 April - 4 May, 2013

Produced by Ouroboros Theatre in Association with The Everyman, Cork
In the Peacock Theatre

Directed by Michael Barker-Caven

Lighting Design: Kevin McFadden

Set and Costume Design: Joe Vanek

With: Patrick Moy, Des Nealon, Frank McCusker, Denis Conway, Jane McGrath, Rachael Dowling


Richard II runs at The Everyman, Cork from 7–11 May, 2013.