Richard II – January 2008


By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Michael Boyd

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Wednesday 16th January 2008

At last! I managed to sit through over three hours of drama with hardly a cough! Wonderful. And on top of all that, we got to see a production that has already become an old friend – we shall miss seeing it every few months (only now we’re thinking of doing some of the plays again, in London, so who knows?).

Our seats this time were as far round as you could get, and in the front row. I was a bit worried about the gardening scene, in case we were sprayed, but the chap at the cloakroom reckoned it was the high numbers who were in for a soaking. So much more fun when it’s someone else, isn’t it? We still had a pretty good view, and as well as seeing a different emphasis in some scenes, there were some additional details that I hadn’t seen at all before. It’s possible these were new, though I suspect some were simply hidden from us in the past. There were lots of lines I lost in the first half, as the receiver for the headset was set to the wrong channel – now I know how to deal with that in future – but everything was clear as a bell in the second half. Incidentally, these seats had a different risk – that of getting our eyes poked out by the sword tips that were swishing around, but fortunately no doctor was required.

There were a number of changes that I noticed, and a number of things that struck me this time. There seemed to be a reduced amount of sand falling on Richard. Steve and I remembered it lasting through the Queen’s chat with him. I spotted the eyeing that both the future Henry VI and Queen Margaret gave each other at the end of the gardening scene – another example of carrying the characters through the set of plays. When Bolingbroke refers to himself as “a trueborn Englishman”, I was reminded that Richard was born in France, as Paul Edmondson mentioned this afternoon. Throughout the opening scene, Richard looked scared – I took this to be his fear that Mowbray will implicate him in Gloucester’s death. The ending gave an extra sense of the guilt weighing Henry down, with Richard’s body lying in his coffin at the foot of the steps, and Henry himself finding it harder to walk up them. I also found the explicit use of Bagot as the murderer, in place of Exton, a lot clearer this time. I heard all of the Duchess of Gloucester’s speech this time – nicely done – and in general the performance had the feel of a cast well used to the play, putting in extra details here and there, bringing out even more of the resonances and echoes. At the end, as Richard is dying – he has to have a few lines before he finally snuffs it, of course – he seemed to be hunched over a bit, in reference to the later Richard?

At the start, I was more aware of the formality of the dance, the sound of feet on floor (ballet only seems glamorous till you hear the thuds and thumps), the complete absence of music, and the presence of dead Gloucester. It’s as if we were watching from behind thick glass, as if the sound had been taken away (mostly), and the movements were all. From this point, I was more aware of the spectacle of Richard’s court; that he was all mouth and no action. Paul had also mentioned that this was one of only four plays that Shakespeare had written entirely in verse, and I realised that contributed to the artificial nature of everyone’s behaviour. I can’t remember how long Gloucester stayed on the stage before – this time he left during his widow’s speech.

The preparations for the duel seemed more elaborate than I remember, but that may just have been the different perspective. I did notice that Richard starts out by asking the Marshal to find out who these men were, and why they were here to fight – as if he didn’t know! This added to the theatricality of the proceedings – everyone’s playing a role. (And doesn’t Shakespeare love playing with that idea!) Richard is more dismissive of Henry than I remember, ignoring him after they first speak, and the oath swearing bit was dropped, Mowbray exiting on the line “To dwell in solemn shades of endless  night”.

The next scene, where Richard’s mates are lolling about in comfort while his wife stands around, looking like a spare chastity belt at an orgy, served to give more emphasis to Richard’s dubious relationships. It includes a lovely song which all the men are singing, and which I don’t remember happening before. When Richard arrives to visit John of Gaunt, after a splendid “sceptred isle” I may add, Richard is clearly put out at the way Gaunt refuses to play the part of a loyal, happy subject, fulfilling Richard’s fantasy of himself as a divinely ordained King for whom everything goes wonderfully well. He moves quickly from pampered happiness to pouty sulks, and John of Gaunt’s tongue-lashing gives him plenty of opportunity for that. At first, with Gaunt’s clever punning on his own name, the court is happy, as he seems to be finally joining in with the spirit of the age, but that soon changes.

The Duke of York is even more of a dither when the news comes that Bolingbroke has landed. Northumberland’s flattery of Bolingbroke, by saying that his company has made the journey seem lovelier, is stronger this time, and contrasts really well with the opening of Henry’s reign, when everyone’s being nasty to everyone else, flinging gages right, left and centre. There’s a huge heap of them in the middle of the stage by the time Henry calls for Richard to come and hand over his crown.

Before this, in the scene where Richard arrives back in England, we see both the epitome of Richard’s fantasising, and the beginning of his awakening to reality. He’s up and down like an emotional yo-yo, playing at being a royal king, then despairing and lashing out at supposed betrayers. The language is wonderfully moving, and Scroop’s way of delivering the news tightens the screw beautifully. First off, he’s incredibly long-winded about how bad his news is, then he takes ages to mention minor details like the Duke of York’s gone over to the other side, you don’t have any troops, etc. I found myself feeling more sympathy than usual for Richard at this point. He’s a child-king, never able to develop properly, and that’s as much part of his downfall as his other failings.

Back in hetero-land, Richard’s about to give us some of Will’s best language as he hands over his crown. We reckoned there was less of the physical tug-of-war this time, more emphasis on the language. I could see a bit of Richard’s reflection in the mirror from this side, and I wondered how easy it would be for an actor to play this scene without having a real reflection to look at. A question for another production, I think.

I enjoyed the “pardon” scene, along with its precursor. The duchess actually sits on York’s lap to try and prevent him from going to the king, and she’s just as insistent as ever when she finally turns up at court. After that, it’s just the slaying of the ex-king and the final reports of dead traitors, complete with bloody heads (in bags). The gore and sand were as before – a messy business, these histories.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at