Much as England’s nobility battles for power in an ever-changing political imbroglio, Not The Way Forward Productions’ Richard II is an inconsistent, inconstant and intriguing piece of work. Producing a piece of theatre from in quarantine is an extraordinarily ambitious task and, perhaps, if one is set on adapting Shakespeare for theses isolated times, Richard is apt. As a play mostly focused upon the political machinations behind the battles of the age, a ‘talking heads’ style version of it has less opportunity to wrong than in transposing a more action-heavy production.
The performances are, on the whole, excellent. Each performer does a lot with their setup. The bedrooms viewed from homemade camera angles lends an intimate, even slightly voyeuristic, touch each scene. The actors all do well, often acting (as must be the case at present) against no fellow performers, delivering their lines in a clearly assured manner. Much as would be the case onstage, this is not edited to allow mid-scene breaks in which actors might look over their lines. This, too, adds to the immersive and persuasively put together ‘hidden-camera’ approach.
Much of the casting is genderblind, which will often bring out interesting elements of alteration for those who know either the history or the original. This, however, is also where certain odd choices begin to come into play. Genderblind casting is not new to Shakespeare. In fact, the National Theatre production of Twelfth Night, starring Tamsin Greig in a traditionally male role, streamed only last week. Perhaps appositely, Instances of ‘Lord’ are changed to ‘Lady’, ‘Duke’ to ‘Duchess’ and so on. And yet, unlike NT’s Twelfth Night, in which Greig’s character’s name changed from Malvolio (as in Shakespeare’s original text) to Malvolia to suit the switch, the names of characters remain the same. Gender-fluid productions of these plays are more than welcome and often lend fascinating new light to the material, but the decision here just seems inconsistent. Alone, these would have been easily ignorable, only being very minor blemishes, but the language modifications continue further into the text. Departing entirely from most Shakespeare, lines are added or changed to suit a semi-modernised dialect. It is common, of course, to remove lines and often whole scenes (the editing that condenses this script down to a brisk 45 minutes is executed pretty flawlessly), but the shifts from contemporary to classical dialogue are jarring. A mention of the M5 compelled me to rewind and ensure I’d heard correctly. Given the excellence of the performances, it was a shame to be so constantly reminded that they were performances by a script that seemed unsure whether to embrace its strange reality.
As a piece, then, this is highly ambitious and at times very well accomplished. What really matters, at the core, is strong. Some strange choices along the way detract somewhat from what is an admirable and worthy attempt to bring together something we are all missing in quarantine: new experiences of theatre. While it has its issues, Not The Way Forward’s Richard II is a new and noble production of a kind very thin on the ground at the moment.