Richard II – December 2011

7/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Michael Grandage

Venue: Donmar Warehouse

Date: Thursday 15th December 2011

This was an interesting production, a reasonably clear version of the story which placed the emphasis on the political situation. The set had lots of Gothic arches, there was a carved stairway on the right hand side, the wood had a distressed effect, and there was a strong smell of incense as we entered. The costumes had a strong mediaeval influence. Richard himself sat on a throne towards the back of the stage in the centre, and stayed there, motionless, till the play actually started.

The performance began with several young men coming on, kneeling before him, and then taking their place behind him, first one, then another. These were Bushy, Bagot, Green and Aumerle. Then the Duke of York and the Queen entered together and curtsied, and finally the Lord Marshall and John of Gaunt took up their positions in the front corners of the stage. It was a slow start, and with such a wordy play there’s a need for a brisk pace to keep the energy levels up. This production didn’t do too badly in that department, thankfully, and with the political aspects being brought out so strongly it felt like a political thriller at times, which helped to keep me involved.

The mention of Gloucester’s death troubled the king and his supporters, though he recovered well. Eddie Redmayne played the king as an effete young man, aware of his power and impatient of the old-fashioned niceties. He stood in poses, like a mannequin which could move, and this allowed for a clear change once he’d lost power and his movements became more natural. Having failed to make peace between Bolingbroke and Mowbray, the date for the duel is set and the king leaves.

The widowed Duchess of Gloucester’s complaints to her brother, John of Gaunt, were clear, and again the point about Richard himself being responsible for his uncle’s death came across strongly. Sian Thomas doubled this part with the Duchess of York, and did both very well. The duel scene had the king and his companions up on the balcony, with the combatants and the Lord Marshall down below. I think there was a lot of cutting here, as it didn’t seem to be as long as my text indicates. Richard came down to say his farewells to both Bolingbroke and Mowbray, and then returned to the balcony. The knights put on their armour, including big helmets, and strode off stage for the fight, one at each corner. When Richard threw his baton down, the knights had to come back on stage, while the king had a huddled conference with his court up above. The banishing was over with quickly, and then Richard tried to be kind to his uncle in reducing Bolingbroke’s sentence by four years. The smile on his face suggested he expected his generosity to be well received, but John of Gaunt wasn’t impressed. The father and son leave-taking was edited down, and soon we’re back with the court, and Aumerle’s cheeky comments about Bolingbroke’s departure. Richard’s dislike of his cousin, his willingness to use any means necessary to raise money, and his delight at the prospect of John of Gaunt’s death, all came across loud and clear.

The Dukes of York and Lancaster were having a good bitch-fest in the next scene – does Richard have any friends amongst his family? John of Gaunt’s main speech was excellent. The central part is such a well-known piece, it can sometimes seem like a couple of verses of Land of Hope and Glory, losing the context of those lines completely. Here, Michael Hadley kept the thought going through the entire speech: this country is wonderful, and look how he’s buggered it up! When Richard arrived, he kept up the harangue, and again Richard wasn’t too pleased with him. Even so, his abrupt change of subject to the Irish wars after a brief moment to acknowledge Gaunt’s death, was both funny and shocking, leading to York’s strong outburst against the theft of Bolingbroke’s inheritance. Richard’s choice of York to act as regent in his absence was quite funny in these circumstances.

After the king departed, the remaining lords start the plotting that will eventually put a new king on the throne. Again, this scene was well cut to leave a strong impression of the political storyline. The next scene, with the queen, Bushy and Bagot learning about the invasion of Bolingbroke, was fine, and Ron Cook, as the Duke of York, gave a lovely performance of an elderly man who just can’t get his head round what’s going on.

Northumberland’s flattery of Bolingbroke wasn’t really commented on in this performance, although it still seemed over the top to me. Hotspur was remarkably restrained for once, and the Duke of York was wonderfully stroppy at first when he arrived, ticking off his nephew like he was a naughty schoolboy. The others stood up to him pretty well, and of course he’s not able to actually do anything in military terms to stop them. He was almost off the stage before he invited them in to his castle for the night.

I think this was where they took the interval. Richard had come onto the balcony around the start of this scene, and as it progressed, he moved forward and stood at the railing, hands held in a pose of prayer. As the scene ended, he was held in a spotlight for a few seconds before the lights went out. The play restarted with Salisbury trying to keep his Welsh troops together and failing, followed by the execution of Bushy and Green – don’t remember how or if they staged these executions.

Richard’s return to England was well done. He still had the haughty attitude to begin with, but as he went through the various levels of despair, that shifted, and by his final exit he looked resigned to having lost the crown. I liked Phillip Joseph’s Bishop of Carlisle very much in this scene; he watched Richard approvingly when the king talked about his divine right to rule – “if angels fight, weak men must fall, for heaven still guards the right” – and chided him strongly when he was in despair. Richard’s “sad stories of the death of kings” came across very well, as did the remaining ups and downs of this scene.

The rest of the story trundled through quite well. The Duchess of York was the queen’s companion in the garden, which worked very well for me, and again the political points were very clear. There was some humour in the gauntlet-flinging episode, though not as much as I’ve known before, and the deposition scene was fine. Richard held the crown up across the throne, and told Bolingbroke to “seize the crown”, as usual. Bolingbroke hesitated, so Richard continued with “on this side my hand, and on that side thine” – then Bolingbroke took hold of the other side. The mirror speech was good too, and then Richard heads off to the tower, the new king leaves the stage, and another plot starts up.

Richard and his queen take their leave of each other, and then there’s the Aumerle pardoning sequence, which they did OK, not as funny as some I’ve seen, but still enjoyable enough. When the Duchess got up off her knees, she leaned on her husband’s shoulder, and stopped him getting up; in fact, she nearly flattened him! That was a nice touch.

For the Pomfret scene, I wasn’t sure if they were doubling the groom and Aumerle because of the restricted number of actors, or if it was meant to be Aumerle in disguise. The way the king hugged him after throwing back his hood suggested it was. The speeches were OK, but I didn’t get anything extra out of them; the political stuff was all done by this time, so the play lost a little focus at the end. The final scene, with the deaths of the conspirators who wanted Henry dead, was fine. A coffin was brought on to represent Richard’s body, but we didn’t get a peek inside. We were a pretty appreciative audience, and we gave them plenty of applause, which they well deserved.

It’s difficult, after the intense and richly detailed experience of the Michael Boyd History Cycle, to view many of these plays as isolated works. The depth and interconnectedness of the full cycle can lead to one-off productions seeming weak by comparison (although Richard III usually overcomes this). I did like the political focus in this version, but there was a lack of the personal aspects which made it less enjoyable than some other productions we’ve seen. The cast were all fine – Andrew Buchan did a good job with the part of Henry Bolingbroke, even though there wasn’t a lot for him to do – but overall the performance didn’t sparkle. It was still interesting and fairly enjoyable, so not a bad final production for Michael Grandage.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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