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Review: Richard II

Exit lacks excitement

Donmar Warehouse, London WC2

    Redmayne as Richard
    Redmayne as Richard

    Probably best not to draw any parallels between this being the final production of Michael Grandage's stunning reign at the Donmar, and the fact that the play the director has chosen for his swan-song is about a king's fall from divine grace. Unlike Richard, Grandage will doubtless go on to even greater things.

    In the role of the monarch, Eddie Redmayne - whose sensitive face is currently plastered all over the country on posters advertising his latest film, My Week with Marilyn - is a man who is in no doubt about his divine right to rule.

    Grandage's production lets the audience take their seats only after Richard has taken his. We enter the auditorium to find the king in, not just regal, but ethereal pose. The place even smells of godliness. Well, incense. And so, driving Grandage's characteristically pacy production is the sense that to depose the king, even one as unjust and unwise as Richard - who taxes his country to the hilt in order to prosecute an ill-advised campaign in Ireland - is to think the unthinkable.

    But there is a price to be paid for emphasising that Richard and his enemy Bolingbroke - played by an underpowered Andrew Buchan - are motivated by a sense of what is right, rather than baser impulses such as avarice and ambition.

    The scene during which Richard returns from Ireland to be met with a triple whammy of bad news about the rebellion can reveal the most satisfying and darkly funny transformation, in which the king at last realises that he is losing power and has to come to terms with his new, less exalted status.

    Here, though, the sense is more of Richard sulking at the unfairness of it all, even when he speaks one of Shakespeare's most beautiful speeches, in which he describes the lesson he has harshly learned about the human condition, that "I, nor any man… shall be pleased till he is eased with being nothing".

    Redmayne delivers the lines well, but they would have had more impact if the king's descent had felt more deserved.

    There is, though, much else about the evening that is on a par with Grandage's finest moments at the Donmar. Richard Kent's atmospheric design, with its background of carved medieval wooden arches, evocatively defines the mood, a trademark of many a Grandage production. But for the sheer dramatic thrill that has characterised so many of the director's offerings over the past decade, you have to look back beyond this show.

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