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NTL's Richard II (2019).Marc Brenner

What a bloody mess Britain is in – and no strong leadership in sight to guide the way out.

With a no-deal Brexit looming, is it too late to look to English playwrights William Shakespeare and David Hare for help?

Two theatre productions currently on in London – a cynical new take on Shakespeare’s Richard II at the Almeida Theatre, and Hare’s cautiously optimistic new play I’m Not Running at the National Theatre – are concerned with ambivalent political leaders in moments of crisis. Both will screen across Canada at Cineplex cinemas later this winter through the NT Live series.

I caught both shows in person in December at a time when the British headlines were all about the major political parties eating their own.

The Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May had just survived a no-confidence motion initiated by her own party members after postponing a vote on her Brexit deal, while opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn was facing an uprising in Labour ranks for suggesting he could negotiate a better Brexit than May, rather than pushing for a second referendum on leaving the European Union.

At one point, a rogue MP seized the ceremonial mace in the House of Commons in a symbolic protest. “I felt parliament had effectively given up its sovereign right to govern properly,” he told reporters afterward.

Director Joe Hill-Gibbins' production of Richard II is full of such impotent and eccentric theatrical political gestures in the face of a lack of leadership.

The venerable English actor Simon Russell Beale gives an impressive star turn as the title character – an indecisive and entitled king of England who is eventually overthrown and murdered.

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Simon Russell Beale in Richard II (2019).Marc Brenner

Taking his cue from the imprisoned Richard’s speech late in the play in which he says, “I have been studying how I may compare / This prison where I live unto the world,” Hill-Gibbins places Beale’s Richard in a giant metallic cell for the entire play and presents the action in flashback.

Aside from Richard and his challenger Henry of Bolingbroke (a ferret-like Leo Bill), who eventually becomes King Henry IV, all the nobles in Shakespeare’s work are played by the same six actors rotating through roles and switching allegiances with ease, a stylized opportunistic mob.

There’s lots of tearing off of gloves and tossing them to the ground in outrage – and a cartoonish use of giant buckets labelled “blood,” “soil” and “water.” No ceremonial mace is seized, but Richard and Henry play tug of war with a paper crown. Once Henry has it, though, he’s reluctant to put it on. (You can’t help but think of Brexiteer Boris Johnson a bit.)

Hill-Gibbins’ flattening of Shakespeare’s play into a clownish power struggle may be reflective of the moment, but it eventually becomes exhausting. Still, Beale’s petulant but plangent Richard makes it worth seeing, most movingly in his chilling, childlike conjuring of the speech: “Let us sit upon the ground / And tell sad stories of the death of kings.”

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Aside from Richard and his challenger Henry of Bolingbroke, all the nobles in Shakespeare’s work are played by the same six actors rotating through roles and switching allegiances with ease.Marc Brenner

Richard II is strangely sidelined in Canadian theatre – the Stratford Festival hasn’t staged it on its own since 1999 – despite being one of Shakespeare’s more compelling history plays and full of such vivid, well-known monologues.

John of Gaunt, Richard’s uncle, has the most famous of them all – his ode to “this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England”:

This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle,

This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,

This other Eden, demi-paradise,

This fortress built by Nature for herself

Against infection and the hand of war,

In his excellent new polemic Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain, the Irish writer (and theatre critic) Fintan O’Toole argues that Brexit is not really about Britain (after all, every council in Scotland voted to remain in the EU), but about England and a resurgent English nationalism misdirected.

O’Toole cites John of Gaunt’s speech in Richard II as the piece of poetry that most sums up the patriotic feelings of Brexiteers, while also capturing the contradiction of their conflation of England and Britain. John of Gaunt (or Shakespeare’s) geography is out of kilter: England is not an island; Britain is. In order to celebrate their insularity as islanders, the English actually have to embrace their neighbours.

The invention of Britishness as a political identity dates back to Shakespeare’s times, after the death of Elizabeth I – the anxieties about which Richard II channels – and the accession of James VI of Scotland as James I of England in 1603.

It would be another 104 years before the union of Scotland and England’s parliaments, but ShakesSDeare got started on selling the idea of Britain to the English as playwright with the King’s Men. As O’Toole notes, the word “England” appeared in 224 of Shakespeare’s Elizabethan plays and only 18 times in his Jacobean plays thereafter; after James became King, Shakespeare used the word “British” for the first time and 28 more times after that.

Though partially set in 2018, the word “Brexit” – a portmanteau of Britain and exit – is not used at all in I’m Not Running. The latest by David Hare (Skylight, Stuff Happens, The Judas Kiss) is a strange beast: A state-of-the-nation play that, on the surface, completely ignores the current state of the nation.

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Sian Brooke and Amaka Okafor in I'm Not Running at the National Theatre.Photo by Mark Douet

I’m Not Running concerns a doctor named Pauline Gibson (the charming Sian Brooke) who is elected to the British Parliament as an independent, single-issue MP after opposing the closure of her hospital in the small town of Corby. Like many such politicians, her personal popularity exceeds that of any of the mainstream parties.

With the Labour leadership about to open up, and career politicians being disdained by the electorate, Pauline is trying to decide whether to join the party and run.

Hare jumps around in time following this working-class woman from her university days in the 1990s (in a dorm room complete with Chemical Brothers poster) to the House of Commons today, exploring the various reasons why a person (and a woman in particular) might or might not want to lead.

Is it possible to remain popular and make the compromises necessary to lead a party or a country?

Pauline’s antagonist is her university boyfriend Jack Gould (an appropriately exasperating Alex Hassell) – a successful, pragmatic career Labour politician with a strong jaw and weak principles who also has leadership aspirations.

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Sian Brooke and Alex Hassell in I'm Not Running at the National Theatre.Photo by Mark Douet

The most riveting scene features Pauline and Alex facing off over New Labour reforms to the National Health Service about a decade ago.

He argues, not unpersuasively, that the residents of Corby might actually benefit from the closure of their expensive, inefficient brick-and-mortar hospital – getting better care at more specialized regional hospitals only minutes away by ambulance. She, on the other hand, rails against that liberal God efficiency – and notes that a hospital is as important to Corby’s identity as a community as it is to their health.

With Pauline, Hare seems to be dreaming of a populist leader who understands identity and rails against the elites, but is progressive. Is it possible that someone like that could emerge to unite today’s Britain? The title may seem defeatist, but this entertaining well-acted production contains a glimmer of hope.

Richard II runs at the Almeida Theatre to Feb. 2 and will screen in Canadian cinemas in February. I’m Not Running runs at the National Theatre until Jan. 31 and will screen in Canadian cinemas in March. Check for exact dates and times near you.

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