Richard II – November 2006

Experience: 6/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Claus Peymann

Company: Berliner Ensemble

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Thursday 16th November 2006

This was an interesting experience. Apart from the Othello adaptation at the start of the Complete Works Festival, I haven’t seen much German theatre before, possibly none, so this was a first for me. (I’ve seen Cabaret, but that doesn’t really count.) I found much of it a bit dull, but I did learn a lot, and there were some lovely pieces of action, so all in all, it was quite good fun.

It was done in German, with surtitles, which were mostly in Shakespeare’s own words. It was heavily edited, and had one of the most intriguing bits of doubling I’ve ever seen. More of that later.

The set – the Courtyard was converted into a white box, with lots of panels to make windows and doors as needed, and two gaping holes either side. The walls sloped in towards the back, and white lines painted on the floor gave an exaggerated perspective. The rear panel lifted up (rather slowly – some of the scene changes were painfully slow, although we were entertained by lots of banging and clunking noises in the meantime), and revealed a contracted snooker table also with exaggerated perspective, mostly hidden behind a pillar. The pillar had two ledges on the front, which acted as seats and also the throne. At other times, the pillar and table were taken away to leave a large open space behind the walls, bare apart from two tiny ships, cut-outs, presumably, which were sailing along the back wall, except that one of them was sinking. Were we supposed to make anything of them, I wonder? Nothing was said, no reference was made to them that I caught. The other item on the stage at the start was a dead dummy, which I took to be the murdered Duke of Gloucester, the trigger for the action in the play. The same dummy reappears at the end, this time representing dead Richard, a nice touch.

I tried to avoid reading the surtitles, as I knew the play fairly well, but I wasn’t getting much from the performances at first, so I gave in and read them as often as I wanted to. It was a good choice. Even so, parts of the first half dragged a bit for me. It took me some time to get used to the performance style. The costumes were modern, with a 30’s influence and some surreal touches – one character had what seemed to be a black codpiece strapped over the front of his trousers. The actors were mostly whited up, not too solidly, and there was a black line on Bolingbroke’s face, from one ear, across the jaw and over the other ear, presumably a minimalist beard. Another actor had very red ears – I’m assuming it was make-up! Movements and expressions tended to be either very restrained or totally over the top. Together with the white faces and the blank set, this gave the whole production a surreal, clownish air. I certainly didn’t connect very deeply with any of the characters at this stage.

The gauntlet-throwing scene was the first bit I really enjoyed. The gloves had been stiffened and weighted, with darts inserted through the fingers, so they could be flung down (fairly carefully!) and would stick upright in the floor. Very effective. The second gauntlet-throwing scene was even better. It used the same gloves, but with many more challenges the floor fairly bristled with them. Very funny.

Veit Schubert’s interpretation of Bolingbroke took a bit of getting used to. I’m not sure I liked it though it was interesting to see how he developed the character through the play. He came across more as a buffoon – very nervous and diffident at first in front of the King, flaring up into temper during the accusations, but quickly abashed when the King intervenes. I wasn’t sure how this would work out further on, but he managed to get some menace and authority into the characterisation.

Richard first appears playing snooker (or billiards) with his disreputable mates. He’s a slightly sunken figure, suggesting dissipation and a wasted life. The casual way he ‘remembers’ to put on the crown – gosh, almost forgot he’s king – got a laugh, and there was a lot to like in this performance, particularly in the abdication scene. The Queen doesn’t have much to do in these early scenes, but she makes the most of the later ones – be patient.

John  of Gaunt’s dying speech didn’t particularly move, nor did I find Richard’s “why, uncle, what’s the matter” as funny as I have seen it before. But Richard’s ruthlessness comes across well, and sows the seeds of his downfall. Bolingbroke, returning from exile to claim his lands, will find plenty of supporters in England.

The Queen’s histrionics over her husband’s departure for Ireland, to crush the rebels, were so OTT as to be laughable. But she was also sowing seeds (funny how this play brings out so many gardening metaphors!) for later reaping. One of Richard’s supporters (don’t know which – there’s supposed to be two of them in this scene – we only get one) tries to comfort her, but she collapses with grief. There’s a working tap strategically located on the left stage wall, and he uses it to get water to wake her up, which it does. But this woman is a serial fainter. After another collapse or two, the pattern is set, and little do we know how often she’s going to hit the deck before the end!

Bolingbroke’s meeting with his last remaining uncle, the Duke of York, had a few entertaining moments. The Duke seemed to be more intent on carrying out his duty to defend England and arrest Bolingbroke than I’ve seen before – he was having a real strop! – and was induced to support Bolingbroke more because his forces were too weak to oppose him than by sympathy for his cause. However, they soon make up, and the Duke invites them into his house, which appears miraculously at the edge of the set, peeping from behind the right wall, about a foot high and with lights showing at the tiny windows and door. Ran out of budget? Mind you, it was cute.

The killing of Bushy and Green didn’t do much for me, nor was I all that taken with Richard’s return to England, though I did like the parallel between Bolingbroke kissing the earth of his native land when he leaves and when he returns, and Richard patting the earth with his hands. Earth has always featured strongly in this play – and this production gives it full prominence.

OK, so Richard goes through his ups and downs – first he’s got lots of troops, then there are none, despair, hope, despair, etc. Then Bolingbroke turns up and does the swiftest capture of the King I’ve ever seen. So far, I hadn’t felt particularly engaged with this production. In fact, I had just asked Steve (in a whisper, of course) the rhetorical question ‘There is going to be an interval, isn’t there?’ when the whole thing changed, and the fun began. The herald of this transformation was a nun. A dancing nun. I kid you not. She pranced onto the stage in a seriously lively manner, flinging flower-darts at the floor with gay abandon. (She actually caught the Queen’s dress in one and had to redo it.) This nun then tries to do the impossible – cheer up her companion, the miserable serial fainter. Tough proposition. But this nun’s almost up to the task. She offers dancing, singing and telling stories as possible entertainments, but the Queen’s having none of it (although we do get a bit of singing). Her demonstration for the dancing suggestion consisted of some funky moves that wouldn’t have been out of place in a modern nightclub. Even though the Queen wasn’t joining in, the nun boogied for as long as she could. The amazing dancing nun. I don’t often get to see such a thing, and my mood improved massively.

Then the real mud-slinging started. A lower panel had been removed, and someone was trying to get a wheelbarrow through the gap. They failed. Umpteen times. The wheelbarrow kept banging against the wall. Of course, it was all deliberate, and eventually the gardener got through, brought the wheelbarrow over to the centre of the stage, and tipped out the earth it carried onto the stage. Several handfuls of dirt had already fallen out with all the banging, so the place looked a right mess by this time. Second gardener comes on, with a hose, connects it to the tap, and turns it on. Water shoots across the stage. The Queen and the nun are already lurking out of harm’s way, but the other gardener is in for a soaking, as is the mound of earth. As the water soaks into it, and runs all over the stage, the first gardener mixes it up, creating a nice splodgy mess. When they’ve got it good and mushy, they put it round the flowers previously planted by the nun.

All this while, the gardeners have been discussing the regime change (yes, the play does actually go on while all this is happening), and the Queen gets upset. And we know what happens when this Queen gets upset, don’t we? She rushes over to tell the gardeners off. Now I thought she’d do her best to keep her lovely white frock clean, but no. First off, she grabs the end of the gardener’s spade and starts shaking it, so she’s already got her hands mucky, plus some dirt gets on her dress. But then the pressure escalates, and plop, down she goes, slap bang in the middle of what’s left of the mud heap. What fun! And how handy there’s a man with a hose ready to wake her up. Definitely not a production to see from the front row, unless you’re well water-proofed. We weren’t surprised that the interval came just after this scene.

We were surprised, though, to find they’d left all the mud on the stage for the second half. Not only that, they added more. As Richard and his queen tried to say their goodbyes, missiles of mud came flying diagonally across from behind the walls to crash against the far walls, making the whole stage look like a disastrous episode of Ground Force. The mud was put to good use, however, as Aumerle uses it to write “Richard forever” or some such on the back wall, just to show he’s about to become a traitor. The race to beg for Aumerle’s pardon/demand that he be executed, was so-so, while the abdication was suitably fraught with “will he, won’t he” tension, and the mirror scene was interesting, as for once Richard holds the mirror up so we in the audience can see his reflection as well. Given what’s gone on before, perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised that the mirror too gets smashed on the floor, but I was. Even more mess to clean up. I also recognised some of the lines as echoing Helen of Troy’s description as “the face that launched a thousand ships”.

Despite there being several “spare” actors who could have taken on the role of Exton, killer of the king, there was an interesting choice made in this production to use the Duke of York for this job. Very interesting choice, emphasising the Duke’s readiness to ingratiate himself with the new regime, and perhaps even the necessity to do this. As a result, the pre-death scenes for Richard have to be slightly curtailed, as he knows his assassin all too well, so we just get his musings on his life now, a bit of the music and his thanks to his jailer (no groom), and then it’s goodnight from him. Richard did come across quite well here, showing a degree of emotional and mental development from the early stages, and I found it quite moving, if a little brief.

The final scene has Henry IV washing the mud off the walls with the hose. With each wall, the Duke of York brings on another computer printout with news of more traitors’ deaths. Henry looks less than happy to be interrupted, and drapes these printouts over the back of his throne. At the end, the Duke announces the delivery of Richard’s dead body (the dummy), and is inevitably banished by the king. One important cut here – I was glancing at the surtitles, and noticed that the part line “love him murdered” was omitted. The implication for me was that Henry really didn’t mind Richard’s murder, but had to make a show of remorse for public consumption. Very interesting choice.

Although I didn’t enjoy this as much as some other productions I’ve seen, I have to admit it was a well-thought out version of the play, bringing out some interesting connections and patterns, and placing much more emphasis on the political aspects. Warfare at home and abroad, regime change, despotic leaders, failed assassination attempts, fearing to express opposition, bumping off political rivals, connections with the land – perhaps there’s something in recent German history that makes these things resonate today?

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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