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Kevin Spacey's Richard II

Review by Paul Feldman

The great thing about Shakespeare's plays is that because they deal with universal and enduring features of individual, social and political life, they lend themselves to modern presentation.

Henry V, for example, was made into a patriotic film during World War II with the backing of the government. More recently, Nicholas Hytner directed the play in modern dress, with armoured cars on stage and news broadcasts justifying the invasion of France on a pretext. The connection with US-British invasion of Iraq on a series of falsehoods was all too obvious.

Trevor Nunn's Richard II at the Old Vic, starring Kevin Spacey, also gives Shakespeare's drama a modern setting. Ostensibly about an absolute monarch whose grip on power is lost through his own feckless actions, Richard II is Shakespeare's most lyrical play. Yet Nunn's direction subordinates the beauty of the dialogue to emphasise the politics of the play.

In the end, Richard II is about state power, how to lose it and how to seize it from your opponents. As Richard rides roughshod over his court, sending nobles into exile and seizing their lands, anger is mounting in the streets. Video footage of the poll tax riots, anti-war marches and police violence are used to indicate that Richard's grip on power is loosening.

The media seizes on the famous speech by John of Gaunt, brilliantly portrayed by Julian Glover, about the decline of England, "this sceptr'd isle" which is now "leased out", to show the gathering storm. Throughout the evening, two giant screens repeat the lines: "That England that was wont to conquer others hath made a shameful conquest of itself." Iraq again springs to mind.

Richard is weakened by a military campaign in Ireland, while Henry Bolingbroke - Gaunt's son - returns from exile. Key sections of the nobility and, more importantly, the armed forces they command, switch sides. From that moment, Richard is doomed. His authority ultimately rests on force - and he can summon only a few loyalists to this side. Humiliated, he is forced to hand over his crown to Henry, who usurps power in a way that will taint his own rule as king.

The last part of the play is about Richard's disintegration. Spacey carries this off but fails to move the audience as deeply as Mark Rylance did at The Globe a couple of years ago.

Nevertheless, this is a riveting performance by Spacey and the political drama in Nunn's production is immense.

The Old Vic 0870 060 6628

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