11 FEBRUARY 1989, Page 45


The Wars of the Roses: Richard II (Old Vic) Hedda Gabler (Olivier)

Power play

Christopher Edwards

The English Shakespeare Company has arrived back at the Old Vic after a success- ful 12-month world tour — Tokyo, Chica- go, Berlin, Australia — of their staging of Shakespeare's history plays. The enterpris- ing founding members, Michael Penning- ton and Michael Bogdanov, have included four more productions to complete Shakespeare's main history cycle. New to London, therefore, are Richard II, the company's adaptations of the three parts of Henry VI (condensed into two plays), and Richard III. These have been added to the earlier productions of Henry IV Parts I and II, and Henry V.

I would enthusiastically recommend this Richard II, in which Pennington takes the lead. He gives a memorable performance — delicate, compelling and complex. And what a relief to find an actor who can project the self-regarding qualities in this character without resorting to prissy, actor- ly mannerisms. Richard II — fatuously but invariably dubbed 'the poet king' appears here as a Regency dilettante. Richard and his champagne-sipping cour- tiers turn out in frock coats, double- breasted waistcoats and silk cravats. Pen- nington's King is self-aware to a morbid degree. Certainly it disables him for the business of government. He is both agent and fascinated spectator of his own down- fall.

He loves his own show-off phrase- making. To the delight of flattering cour- tiers he re-shapes into rhyming couplets some of the King's early remarks directed at the quarrelling Mowbray and Boling- broke (it is, of course, their dispute, and Bolingbroke's subsequent banishment,

that help seal his fate). Richard likes to impress with these tricks. But he also has a violent temper that sweeps over and over- whelms him — notably in the scene where the dying John of Gaunt mercilessly anato- mises his ignoble reign. Gaunt and Boling- broke stand, in different degrees, as father figures. During the brilliantly see-sawing scene where Richard hands over the crown, Pennington stares up at the calm usurping Bolingbroke with almost childlike fascination as if to say, so that is how to exercise power. He then starts listening to himself, equally intrigued by the spectacle of how power can be lost.

Michael Cronin's Bolingbroke is the model bureaucratic revolutionary, with just the right level of unease creeping in at the close to prepare him and us for his later incarnation as the guilt-ridden Henry IV. Other key roles are also surely created: Colin Farrell makes an engaging, well- intentioned bumbler of a Duke of York, and Andrew Jarvis is a brilliant North- umberland Hotspur — impetuous, ingen- uous, adolescent and martial. In fact, very few of the performances disappoint, although Queen Isabel is vocally weak. My main objection was the portentous between-scenes music. This is an ill- conceived attempt to introduce epic self- importance into a production that has quite enough stature by itself. Next week I will report on some of the other plays in the cycle.

The new revival of Ibsen's Hedda Gab- ler, in a version by Christopher Hampton, makes superb theatre. Bob Crowley has assembled a striking and very 'instructive' seta Not for him a domestic interior of claustrophobic chintz (representing the spirit of George Tesman's Amities). The set is spacious. There are two levels of imposing bookshelves. A winding staircase passes through the library gallery and continues, symbolically, up into the blue sky above — into Hedda's dreaM world where things are done 'beautifully'. Strewn about below are dried autumnal leaves -- a mocking reference to Hedda's prospects and to her fantasies of Seeing her hero Lovborg triumph 'with vine leaves in his hair'.

Juliet Stephenson's performance of Hed- da is one of the most powerful and com- plete she has given. The character is vital with frustrated will. Hedda's sardonic, egotistical nature creates an enormous charge. It is part of her tragedy that, in the bourgeois society of the time as Ibsen saw it, the charge could find no focus. Instead life for her becomes a farce. The actress triumphantly brings together all that is desperate, pathetic and ugly in Hedda's nature and makes it compelling. It is an excellent performance, strongly supported by Norman Rodway's Judge Brack — an insinuating old sensualist, and Paul Jes- son's Lovborg — the self-destructive Bohe- mian whom Hedda sends to an inglorious end.