In assessing Not the Way Forward Productions' virtual Richard II in these straitened times, there's a case for just being both grateful and beguiled that it's being done at all. But after all, they have thrust their piece out there into the public domain on YouTube, and this is a serious statement of intent by director Dorothy McDowell, producer Juliet Dowley and their colleagues.
To describe in bare terms what we saw on Tuesday on screen: each of our cast of 10 was under lockdown at home or elsewhere, and each, employing the physical resources to hand in their bedroom or accommodation space, plus the contents of their wardrobe, acted out their part under the director's guidance and filmed by their computer's fixed camera. The characters communicated by phone, and, allowing for inevitable wi-fi delay and trickiness, I thought the connection was surprisingly fluent. A static camera is constraining and perhaps needs a Yasujiro Ozu to turn that constraint into a virtue. But for the most part the effect was not distracting, and the close-ups at moments of heightened tension were affecting. Editor Arjun Pothuri made a decent job of reducing the clunkiness of cuts to a minimum.
Here's one of Shakespeare's less commonly performed history plays, notable to the contemporary playgoer not so much for the interest of its factional politicking, represented mainly in rhetorical set-pieces, but more for the allure of its verse, glorious even by the stratospheric standards of Shakespeare.
The c. 135 minutes running time was here pretty savagely cropped by Dorothy down to 46 mins, though she chose to introduce modern dialogue (I assume from her own pen) into Shakespeare's blank verse and rhyming couplets (the latter unusually prevalent in Richard II). The result was mixed. The re-writing sometimes fell foul of the general student drama misconception that having characters run around shouting 'fuck!' denotes energy. In this case the bedroom space permitted little or no running around, but the line: 'What the fuck is going on?' served merely to draw unwanted attention to the anachronism. On the other hand I enjoyed the incongruous interpolation of references to tenement buildings and the M5 motorway.
Most of John of Gaunt's stand-and-deliver peroration ('This earth, this realm, this England!') in Act II, a nostalgic monument to divinely sanctioned hierarchy, was done away with, and I was sorry to be denied Mary Lobo's tackling of it since she and Harry Berry (Northumberland) were the stand-out deliverers of the verse. Mary sparked fire in her warning and opposing of Richard, and she was the actor in this cast who, notwithstanding very fleeting time on screen, found most depth in her role. Harry used his experience as Macbeth (last December at the BT Studio) to provide an obdurate force of opposition to Richard.
I also enjoyed as York Lola Beal's loyal, ultimately thankless support of her King. Maya Jasinska was a pragmatic Bolingbroke, though sometimes she placed the stress in her lines in unusual places. As the play's lyrically self-defeating central character, Maggie Moriarty seemed early on uncertain in movement and also with the verse rhythms, but I thought she got into her stride later, and in the famously poignant 'let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of queens' monologue (Dorothy McDowell having taken her scissors to it intelligently) she found plenty of dignity and pathos.
The screenings continue daily until Friday. Not the Way Forward have shown that the lockdown need not stifle imagination and ingenuity, and their determination and ambition are a little beacon of optimism this week. Tune in!