Richard II – July 2007

10/10

By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Michael Boyd

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Monday 30th July 2007

This could take a while. It was a great production, and some great performances. Well, actually all the cast were great, and I liked lots about the staging and ideas and echoes of earlier/later themes. What’s coming out of this year’s work is the element of time – plays written earlier which are later chronologically, and the echoes backwards and forwards.

Before each of these plays, we were treated to the usual announcement about switching off mobile phones, etc. A different actor came on each night, and there were some entertaining variations on the theme. Tonight’s announcemen was pretty straightforward, although he did advise us not to switch off pacemakers!

The start of the play was good. The other characters, led by Bagot, all came on in stately procession, moving slowly, and performing some kind of stately dance, with lots of bowing and courtesies, while Richard II walked on through the auditorium, accepting all the bowing and scraping as nothing less than his due. Jonathan Slinger was done up as Elizabeth I – effectively Queen Richard II. He played the part as very effeminate, very wimpish (I could understand why some of the hetero lords wanted rid of him) and very immature. I was thinking it might be difficult to move from there to Richard’s later awareness of the superficiality of it all, but he handled that very well, with the gradual stripping away of his finery underlining the changes. There was still an element of petulance in his telling Percy that his cosy relationship with Henry IV wouldn’t last, but his desperate understanding of his situation in his prison cell was very moving. I became aware of how in Shakespeare’s time, not having decent TV, they might spend time comparing and contrasting situations, just for fun, and Richard’s forcing of the issue, then coming up with a very good metaphor for humanity and its foibles, worked very well.

Mowbray and Bolingbroke complimented the King at the opening to the dispute scene, and I felt Mowbray was trying to outdo Bolingbroke, reminiscent of the opening of King Lear. I couldn’t see Richard’s responses to much of the Bolingbroke/Mowbray dispute, but for once I was really sad to see him break up the fight. They’d set up two jousting horses (suspended saddles) and it looked like we might have some fun, but then Richard threw his baton at a lady in the front row and it was all over. [Turns out the jousting is specifically referenced in Henry IV part 2, so although cumbersome I suspect this may stay.]

Tonight we had a very good John of Gaunt pre-death scene. He came across as really ill, and it was all he could do to get his lines out. Not too surprising he didn’t last much longer. Richard was wonderfully temperamental – at first consoling, then snappy, then pious, then practical about nicking his dead uncle’s dosh and never mind the rightful heir.

There was some unexpected and presumably unwelcome audience participation tonight during the gardeners’ scene. The head gardener was John of Gaunt, still wearing the same clothes, so this was similar to when the dead bodies were recycled in the Henry VI trilogy. He sprayed some folk off to our right with water (he was carrying a hose) and Chuk Iwuji, as the other gardener, looked a bit too keen to use his shears. No dancing nun this time, sadly, but still a good scene overall, with some telling points made about the importance of managing the country well (one of Will’s hobby horses, that).

With Bolingbroke’s return, the difference between him and Richard is emphasised by his much plainer dress sense, and his refusal to be seduced by flattery. When Percy tried to brown-nose Henry about how his wonderful company made the long journey shorter, Henry just ignored him, and I fancied there was a slight look of distaste in his expression. He also communicates more directly and is far more business-like in his dealings. When he meets the Duke of York, tasked with protecting the realm while Richard is away, he gets a good telling off from his uncle for coming back, but then the Duke admits that he can’t do anything to stop him, so invites him in for dinner. I haven’t seen the character played as so weak before. He’s also in much more of a dither when trying to handle the crisis earlier, more so than I’ve seen before.

In the deposition scene, the passing of the crown was fine, with just enough of a lingering feel to it. If anything, Richard was more sparky than earlier, standing up for himself more now there’s nothing more to lose. He tore off his wig and wiped off his makeup as he deposes himself. I didn’t see that bit clearly, but then he has his own face as he looks in the mirror, which was a safety mirror so it didn’t shatter when he smashed it down. Later, for the farewell scene with his wife, there was some kind of dust raining down on his head for a long time – what was it? [sand, we discovered] I wondered how he could breathe and speak his lines. It did suggest a washing off of the anointing, and his transformation into a penitent.

During the second challenge scene, the vast number of gauntlets was really funny. It’s interesting that after accusing Mowbray, Henry now seems to be investigating what actually happened – or is it just a ploy to get rid of a political opponent? What is going on here?

For the Aumerle pardoning scene, it’s the first time I’ve seen other people come on stage with the Duke of York. Percy keeps the door shut on the Duchess, but you can’t keep Maureen Beattie off stage for long. (More than his life’s worth!) Richard Cordery as the Duke of York was glowering magnificently as his wife pleads for her son’s life. Even before he fell to his knees to plead against the pardon, he was well unhappy, and it showed.

Bagot took the role of murderer this time. He came down playing the piano, with a mask on. [Apparently the harness he had to wear meant a lot of talcum powder was used!] Chuk Iwuji played the groom, and there were three other knights with masks who came to kill the king, but he managed to fight them off, with Bagot killing him in the end. Richard’s dead body was dragged off by an arm and a leg, creating a swathe of blood on the stage – reminiscent of the pool of gore in the original Henry VI part 3. Lots of traitors’ heads were brought on in bags for the final scene and dumped in front of Henry, who was sitting on the steps which Richard stood on earlier.

Chuk Iwuji wafted around doing various messenger jobs, having started off as Thomas of Woodstock’s dead body, and this casting emphasised the haunting aspects of the play. Katy Stephens as the Duchess of Gloucester (still married to Chuk, I see) also pre-echoed the revenge theme with her tirade against her husband’s death.

Other things to mention: Richard had a lot of costume changes, reflecting both his descent from power and the opulence he lives in initially. The music was lovely, with some haunting singing which set up a good atmosphere for this staging. There was a strange light bulb sculpture – what was that for? It was interesting, but I’m not clear about its purpose.

I couldn’t possibly get down all my impressions of this performance, as there was so much detail, and so much I liked. I’m very much looking forward to seeing it again, and also seeing the way this play sets up the rest of the history cycle in these productions.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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