Risk that pays off
Fiona Shaw is a remarkable actor with a fearless, challenging quality. Recently she took on performing the whole of T S Eliot's The Waste Land as a solo. Playing Richard II is another piece of her risk-taking especially in a television version like this, where the charge of gimmickry is just waiting to be made.
This two-hour adaptation of Deborah Warner's stately National Theatre production keeps fairly closely to the physical appearance of the original but it is lit differently, giving a generally dark, filmic quality. It is, however, much more than just a televised version of a notable stage production.
Shaw's Richard from the start shows a capricious, almost whimsical, pleasure in the power of kingship, yet there is no hint of an effeminate man in the performance. Shaw plays him as confused, amoral, neutered creature who, scene by scene, begins to acquire conscience and humanity - no longer a manipulator of office and privilege but a vulnerable human being.
This is a production of long and pitiless close-ups. Richard Bremmer as Bolingbroke has the voltage to match Shaw's intensity and Struan Rodger's Northumber-land has an almost sinister, cool.
To an unusual degree everything in this play hangs on the performance of the actor in the central role. Shaw's femaleness distracts very little. She does the smirking self-love very well; then, as Richard's "brittle glory" snaps, she rises to the great speeches and gives him an almost noble resignation and self-awareness.
This Richard II is a fine record of a memorable performance. It is also interestingly poised between being a film and a play.