Richard II, The Globe, 5 May 2012
Two hooded and balaclava-clad figures led Gloucester out of the trap door and sat him down. The prisoner examined his face in a mirror, commenting on its lack of lines and began shaving. His guards snatched the razor from him, bound his arms to the chair and cut his throat. A vial of stage blood was opened and poured onto his neck.
A dramatic touch was added to the end of the scene by the playing of recorded oud music, the sound of which punctuated the production.
Starting with the murder of Gloucester was just the first of a number of bold strokes that contributed to the overall brilliance of this Palestinian Arabic production from Ashtar Theatre.
But Sami Metwasi’s finely tuned interpretation Richard lay at the heart of the piece.
On his first appearance in his neat military uniform, Richard made his way to the front of the stage and offered his hand for the groundlings to shake. This simple gesture indicated how much this Richard expected to be adored by his people. A smile of narcissistic satisfaction at the attention he received signalled another aspect to his character.
But he exuded sufficient authority in his adjudication of the dispute between Mowbray (Ihab Zahdeh), a bearded figure who looked like trouble, and a quite scruffy, nondescript Bolingbroke (Nicola Zreineh), to be wholly convincing as a respected ruler.
At the Coventry lists, the two combatants placed their daggers close together sliding the blades into gaps in the boards and backed away from each other. Richard gestured prissily with a wave of his wrist to make them stand further apart. The gesture was repeated until Mowbray and Bolingbroke were at the back of the yard.
The duel began as both rushed screaming onto the stage, grabbing their daggers. But they were held apart by Richard’s men before they could do any harm. Banishments followed.
Satisfied with his handling of the situation, the king relaxed with whisky-drinking Aumerle (Firas Farah). Richard examined himself in another hand-held mirror as he changed jackets, mocking Bolingbroke’s familiarity with the common people. On hearing of Gaunt’s (Hussein Nakhleh) serious illness he and his companions, including Bagot (Amer Khalil) and Green (Raed Ayasa), fell to their knees offering a sarcastic prayer that Gaunt might die.
The king sat on an ornate chair with his queen at his side and listened in boredom to the infirm Gaunt’s rebukes. Richard eventually closed his eyes and clasped his wife’s hand to his cheek for comfort. But when Gaunt’s criticism crossed the line into insolence, Richard jumped out of his chair. Protesting that he was in good health, he leant forward, placed one hand on the stage and performed a somersault to prove his point.
Northumberland, played by Edward Muallem, was a distinguished senior officer in dress uniform, who occasionally showed a vicious streak when dealing with Richard enemies.
George Ibrahim managed to capture York’s frustration at the impossible and thankless task of managing the country during Richard’s absence fighting in Ireland.
He stomped around in frustration with his pudgy face in a permanent scowl. The stress of the job erupted when a messenger brought news of the Duchess of Gloucester’s death. York simply pushed him against a wall and fulminated at the latest twist of fate.
York resembled a big angry bear when criticising Bolingbroke for returning to England in breach of his banishment. But his temper mollified when he invited Bolingbroke and party to stay with him.
The Welsh captain refused to fight as the stage became a sea of large, coloured flags brandished by people changing sides to Bolingbroke. The flags were in the component colours of the Palestinian flag, a fact that was instantly recognised and applauded by many in the audience.
As Bolingbroke cemented his grip on power, Green was taken prisoner, his throat slit and his dead body spat on. Another vial of blood was opened and poured onto his lifeless figure.
Richard crouched on the ground to call on the spiders, toads and nettles to impede Bolingbroke’s progress. But when the reality of his situation became apparent, he sat on edge of stage with his feet dangling into the yard with tears in his eyes to tell sad stories of the death of kings.
At their meeting at Flint Castle, Richard looked down from the balcony while Bolingbroke and his party stood stage right facing the audience. Northumberland threaded his way round the front of yard to act as go-between. After angrily accepting the offer to descend into the symbolic “base court”, Richard agreed to travel to London. At this point the interval came.
After the comic interlude in the garden, in which the Queen (Bayan Shbib) stamped on the flowers planted by the departing gardener, Bolingbroke got down to resolving the quarrels among his followers.
This was interrupted by York entering with Richard’s crown. The king was soon present to hand it over in person.
As Richard and Bolingbroke each laid a hand on the crown, the tension of the moment was prolonged as Richard waited for a helicopter to pass over before continuing.
He compared himself to a bucket full of tears in a well, kneeling before Bolingbroke to enact his lowly status.
The actual transfer of the crown was, however, less reverential. With the capricious perversity of his character to the fore, Richard stood behind Bolingbroke who was seated on the throne, bent the crown to the shape of the usurper’s skull and popped it unceremoniously on his head, pinching Bolingbroke’s cheek for good measure.
Chills of recognition were felt when Richard called for a mirror and examined his face using the same lines as Gloucester at the start of the play. A story was coming full circle. The lying mirror was stamped on.
Richard was led through the streets of London with his hands tied and had orange peel thrown on him, rather than dust. Not wanting to be separated from Richard, his devoted Queen ducked under his bound arms so that they then held her close to him.
The entire subplot involving Aumerle’s treachery was cut. Removing this extended interlude of light relief meant that the production moved at relentless pace towards its conclusion.
Exton discussed the King’s desire to have Richard murdered, which was followed by an interpolated scene in which Bagot was killed.
His throat was cut and another blood vial emptied over him. He rose and slowly walked off just as Richard, hands still bound, was brought out of the trap door and sat at the base of a stage pillar. This echoed the entry of Gloucester at the start of the performance.
The role of the Groom was cut, so after Richard’s lament at his condition, the Guard brought in his food. Realising he was going to be poisoned, Richard fought with and killed the keeper.
Exton rushed in and wrestled with Richard, who despite having his hands tied, was able to pose a serious risk with the dagger he had snatched.
The struggle ended when Exton grasped the dagger Richard was still holding and, standing behind him, drove the point into Richard’s stomach.
The dead body fell to the ground and Exton emptied a vial of blood over him.
Then the production took an incredibly bold step.
King Henry entered and silently poured another vial over Richard’s body, which was left on the ground for the next scene in which Exton presented the corpse to Henry.
King Henry’s disavowal of the murder now looked like rank hypocrisy. The production thereby made a deliberate comment on the cynical nature of politics, casting Henry as villain rather than hero.
As Henry spoke, the ‘dead’ Richard and Bagot both made their way to the edge of the stage and knelt. When Henry had finished, Bagot exited and Richard was laid flat on the stage again. Northumberland and York exchanged meaningful glances, possibly hinting at the strife that was to accompany Henry IV’s reign.
This production was rigorously faithful to the play yet also inventive. It ripped along at a relentless pace that was enhanced by the absence of comic subplot.
While it was clearly set within the Arab world, it did not resort to crude political analogy. This was a play about Richard rather than any specific contemporary figure.
The crisp, well-defined portrayal of Richard was one that should rank among the very best interpretations of the role.
The fact that Sami Metwasi spoke no English when delivering this interpretation, demonstrated that Shakespeare can indeed be found in translation.