Something queerly melancholic defines to me the overall mood of Brighton. Those days in particular, when the seagulls yell, protesting under a grey sky because soon it will be raining. Perhaps it is a matter of the ocean’s dim waters, and those ancient white ‘walls of land’, both establishing some sort of distance; one ‘borderland channel’, historically insurmountable, while now badge of fears and uncertainties: ‘will the B-thing happen?’ — everyone has the question floating in their mind, even if anyone talks about it any more.
Possibly nothing is more appropriate than this state of mind, to approach one of the mostly ‘inner life’ packed Shakespearean tales — the not meaningless rumination of a ginger, and very English king; in the purest devotion to that white, green, and blue land that feels like relentlessly distancing from any ideal border of the one who English is not: ’scepter’d isle’, ‘other Eden’, and ‘demi-paradise’, a ‘fortress built by Nature for herself / Against infection’…
Fortunately, a change in spirit happens while getting closer to the actual location of this tiny little gem nestled in the Fringe of a rather hard to define festival — music, art, theatre, circus, dance, movies, literature… ‘too much’, some would say, slightly as some Brightonians are, locals and adopted ones, doing their best to overstate, ending up wearing out. The little jewel in question is an ‘off’ event: Puppet King Richard II is a ‘Pocket Epics’ production, — and it really is a poem to be treasured in one’s pocket.
Conceived to be set in the space where it occurs, ‘The Cave at ONCA Gallery’, it is actually a one-man-show, impeccably managed by Gregory Gudgeon — yet RSC and other Shakespearean (and not) companies actor, assisted by a tiny bit of a clumsy Lucas Augustine, under the direction of the splendid Linda Marlowe (currently on stage in London), whose touch can be perceived in the almost fashion choices of the colours, echoing Vivienne Westwood’s punk.
The audience awaits for a while at the ground floor of the gallery, — white paper rolls, and coal chalks, to be then invited to descend underground, in a courtyard/cellar. The number of 26 seats makes of the performance an intimate experience, and despite the restricted dimensions, an incredible perspective discloses to the observer through a sequence of small antrums, setting up more of a devotional crypt, than a prison.
The ‘hollow crown’ hangs close to the heraldic seal — a chained deer, strangled almost with the ‘royal garland’. Genuflected at an altar face to the spectators, Richard entertains as a puppeteer in a childlike manner, while fully conscious that his own fate will held betrayal and death. His own toys are rudimentary tools, such as wooden spoons, and a shoe horn, but also real puppets — carved with unbelievable similarity to the real actor, and director by Jitka Davìdkova and Brigitte Dörner, Czech animation and 1960’s kids TV inspired.
Dressed up in a purple shell suit, white chalk on his face — not in a clownish way, though, black gloves, this virtuous improviser directs the action of the betrayal itself — alternating accents, horses hooves, air planes, and the diminishing of his own stature as a king. An invisible mirror, which will manifest just at the very end, is the real ‘transferal’ motif of a power which is imperceptible itself: the more Richard becomes smaller, the more Henry acquires in matter; black, and red, helped by vultures that would recall the ones of Disney’s Robin Hood, wouldn’t it be for a Hitlerian ‘Ride of the Valkyries’.
Nothing from the plot is spared; and the intimacy with the audience turns into something even more persuasive in the ‘second half’, when the 26 chairs are no longer frontally aligned, but disposed against the walls as in a rectangular House of Lords, all accomplices of the betrayal. Black and red are about to kill purple and ginger, so that when the stab comes, and the poetic ‘ascension’ happens, a deep melancholy takes all back to reality. The seagulls too.