Richard II (Understudies) – October 2013

Experience: 8/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Owen Horsley

Venue: RST

Date: Tuesday 29th October 2013

A very nervous assistant director spoke to us before this afternoon’s performance; forgetting to introduce himself, he briefly explained the RSC’s understudy policy and warned us that we might be seeing some actors playing several parts, with only some slight costume changes to differentiate the characters. Being old hands at this game this was no surprise, but to be honest I never had a problem with who was playing who – the performances were very clear and the characterisations strong, remarkably so for such a short rehearsal period. Our compliments to all concerned.

There was a short pause after the assistant director had left the stage, during which the singers sang beautifully again (the CD is highly recommended) and the Duchess of Gloucester came on and draped herself over her husband’s coffin. When the queen entered at the back there were no spare attendants to accompany her – always a factor with understudy runs – while the rest of the royal family entered from the front corners as before. I noticed this time that both Bolingbroke and Aumerle bowed to each other over the coffin before their fathers came on and did the same.

Oliver Rix was playing Richard this time. Without the hair extensions he looked relatively normal, so all of the characterisation had to come from his acting, and he did an excellent job of conveying Richard’s personality and attitudes throughout. For this entrance, he swept onto the stage and came to the front of the ramp before beginning to question John of Gaunt about his son. During Bolingbroke’s accusations against Mowbray there were supporting calls of “hear, hear” and the like from various members of the court – not sure who. This Richard didn’t do any funny pronunciation for “physician” and “incision”, but his cronies applauded and laughed at the wit of his comment “this is no time to bleed”. Richard was already showing more signs of emotion than David Tennant had in the preview we attended, while John of Gaunt looked positively smug when his son refused to forego his accusation of Mowbray. Bolingbroke even hit Mowbray across the face with the glove after he picked it up.

The opening scene was perhaps not as strong as the full cast’s earlier performance, but there were already signs that the understudy cast were more balanced. And I was particularly pleased to see that the actors whose parts seemed underpowered in the full production were doing a perfectly good job in this understudy run. Their voices were strong and their delivery clear, they had developed their own interpretations while fitting in well with the existing production, and there were some nice touches which were entirely their own. I shall be keen to see how things have changed when we see the full cast again next month, and this performance may also help to gel the whole production together even more.

The following scene between John of Gaunt and the Duchess of Gloucester was very well done, with a nicely paced delivery of the Duchess’ speech from Gracy Goldman, pretending to be much older than she is. She deserves a special mention for the number of parts she was understudying – the Duchesses of Gloucester and York plus Bagot – and doing a splendid job in each one. With this level of doubling the king had to make do with only two of his cronies for the first scene but he managed just fine.

In the duelling scene, I noticed that Richard chatted with his queen a couple of times, during the boring bits presumably. He also listened to one of his cronies while Bolingbroke was making his lengthy request to take his leave of Richard. There were fewer signs of agitation from Richard in the build-up to the fight, and I couldn’t help wondering what would happen if the actor playing the king ever decided to leave the baton throwing for a bit? Fortunately that didn’t happen today, and the king and his two cronies were soon in their huddle. We laughed when the Lord Marshal signalled for another flourish of the trumpets only to wave his arms to cut it short when the king strode forward to deliver his verdict; the musicians tailed off in a slightly disorganised manner.

After the banishment and Mowbray taking a long look at the king while he decided whether to spill the beans or not, I noticed that Bolingbroke was following Mowbray off stage when the king called them both back to take the oath. I wasn’t sure if seeing them leave together prompted the idea of the oath or if he was going to do it anyway; this king was very spontaneous, so I suspect it was the former.

The scene in Richard’s private apartments was fine, and this time I noticed the messenger arriving on the front left walkway and speaking to Bushy, who then passed on the news about John of Gaunt’s illness to the king. Richard rather naughtily paused after “Now put it, God, into his physician’s mind to help him” before completing the sentence with “to his grave immediately”.

John of Gaunt and his brother the Duke of York were very good in their scene together, and I paid more attention to York’s comments about the court being quick to take up every new-fangled fashion that comes from Italy. There was an entertaining look on Richard’s face on “As Harry Duke of Hereford, were he here”, and I think the king said that line though I can’t be sure. However his “So much for that” was also funny, and in general this understudy cast seemed to be finding more of the humour all the way through the performance. I don’t know how much that was down to the willing audience, but I suspect it was mostly the actors’ doing.

After York’s rant against Richard’s decision to “seize” his uncle’s property, Richard nodded at York in response to his question “Seek you to seize…” and waved his hand at his cronies to indicate that they should start the inventory process immediately. They left the stage and returned shortly afterwards carrying chests, cloth, plate, etc. which they showed to Richard before carrying the loot off stage. York’s unhappiness at Richard’s actions was closely followed by the first rumblings of rebellion, which were also nicely done. Steve spotted an interesting name among the list of Bolingbroke’s followers: Sir Thomas Erpingham. Would this be the same Sir Thomas Erpingham who lends Harry junior his cloak in Henry V by any chance? We suspect so.

The comment about Italian fashions seemed more relevant today when Bagot and Bushy brought on the perspective mirror and pictures, given their provenance. The queen was better today too; she seemed less insipid and I was more aware of her emotional state. Bagot and Bushy hid the mirror tube and pictures behind their backs while talking to her until Bushy mentioned “perspectives, which, rightly gazed upon, show nothing but confusion”. They brought out the new toy for her to see what they meant, and this time it made more sense to me, even if it was still unlikely to be clear to people in the back of the stalls.

The Duke of York’s despairing concern about Bolingbroke’s arrival worked better for me today, and it was clear that the king’s followers were not chosen for their military expertise. Ask them to create a new cocktail, or comment on an art installation, and they’d be fine; “muster men”…? They were smart enough to know it wasn’t their forte, and given their lack of popularity they were probably wise to hightail it out of there. Mind you, the Duke of York wasn’t up to much in the military department either and he was one of the warlike Edward III’s sons! (But then we have to make allowance for his age.)

The Berkeley castle scene went well, with Northumberland’s compliment regarding Bolingbroke’s company seeming genuine and courteous rather than flattering. Northumberland was a little out of breath; whether this was acting or simply the effect of running round backstage to change and get back on again I don’t know. Berkeley was indeed cut, and they went straight from “But who comes here?” to “My noble uncle”, with the invading Bolingbroke and his supporters kneeling to the Duke of York.

The departure of the Welsh archers took place in front of an orange full moon, as referenced in the dialogue. Bushy and Greene looked much rougher when they were brought up from below this time. Dressed in tattered rags, they had bloody smears all over them and had clearly suffered torture before their execution. With Bolingbroke listing all the wrongs which he’s suffered at their hands – his father’s estate being torn apart and sold off – I found myself wondering just what was left for Bolingbroke to claim as his own? Apart from his title, that is. This makes it much more likely he was aiming at the crown from the off, since even granting him his title would have led Richard into very awkward territory.

On Richard’s arrival back in England – on the coast if the surf and seagull sound effects were anything to go by – he immediately took off his boots (as had David Tennant) so that he could be in direct contact with the ground. When it came to sitting on the ground, Richard sort of fell down rather than sat, and threw his crown forward onto the ground shortly after his remarks about Death boring “through his castle wall”.

I found this scene very interesting. It appeared to be a process of breaking down all of Richard’s illusions about the nature of his power. For all that he’d been told about the Divine Right of kings, it still came down to who could win the fight on the battlefield, and that involved making friends and being popular within the right circles, skills which Richard never had to develop. All his ideas about angels and the power of his name (i.e. “king”) fell away as the cold hard reality of Bolingbroke’s military superiority was established time after time; it was a kind of shortened version of Lear’s madness leading to a greater sanity, although Richard has a bit further to go on his journey than Lear did at this point. Just before he left the stage, he gave the instruction for “that power I have” with an ironic grimace, given that so many of his followers had already left.

One of the themes of this play is betrayal; this production makes that theme absolutely central. Richard’s reactions during this scene emphasised the point that so many people have deserted him, and the final crushing blow was the betrayal by his uncle, the Duke of York. I was very aware throughout the performance of just how many people betray Richard, including himself, and it was a form of connective tissue holding the production together.

The scenes in front of Flint castle were good and clear, with Percy, and through him Bolingbroke, appearing less concerned about showing their respect for the king than the Duke of York would like. When the balcony dropped down with Richard and Aumerle standing on it, Northumberland stood at the front of the stage facing the audience but looking up as if at Richard, while Richard was looking directly at him. This technique has been used before, and works well to give the audience a good view of these encounters. The lines from “Northumberland, say thus the king returns…” were indeed spoken by Aumerle, but this time I spotted that the king was mouthing the words to him before he spoke, making his speech somewhat disjointed.

Once Northumberland had left to deliver the message, Richard threw off his gold cloak and removed his gold breastplate while he spoke with his cousin Aumerle. He also took off his crown, even making as if to throw it away, before going through the exchanges he was willing to make. It was a little strange seeing the ‘proper’ Aumerle comforting the understudy Aumerle in this scene, but it still worked well, with the two cousins having a full on snog before Aumerle sobbed on Richard’s breast for a bit.

When Northumberland returned, there was a great emphasis on the word “base” which crops up a lot in the ensuing dialogue. Northumberland looked amazed at Richard’s use of the term “king Bolingbroke”, as if he didn’t know quite how to respond to this sudden change. When Richard did come down the others knelt, but not for long, and when Richard spoke to his uncle, telling him to dry his eyes, he was quite kind at first, but on the phrase “want their remedies”, he thrust York from him, reminded that it was his betrayal which had led Richard to “want [his] remedies”. Aumerle likewise rejected his father as the group left the stage to go to London. Interval.

The queen had only one attendant for her scene in the garden, an older lady who was still implicated in the gardener’s reference “which all do know”; from the queen’s expression, this was another reminder of the theme of betrayal. The older gardener handed some string to his young helper first, then called him back for the cane, and finally gave him the curved blade to do some pruning as well – you just can’t get the staff nowadays. The queen and her attendant ‘hid’ themselves behind the skinny poles – memories of Wily E Coyote and his many unsuccessful attempts to catch the roadrunner sprang unbidden into my mind.

Back at court, Bagot was now playing pass the blame, and this time the finger of guilt was pointing at Aumerle. The Percys were rampant hecklers during these accusations, and the comparison with the opening confrontation between Bolingbroke and Mowbray was very strong. The gloves were soon flying around, causing the usual mirth within the audience, and I couldn’t help reflecting that who but a glove-maker’s son would find such an entertaining way to support the glove trade?

The news of Mowbray’s death put all the quarrels on hold, and next up was the un-kinged Richard. I was very aware that nobody in the room, except possibly the Bishop of Carlisle, knew how to respond to this man who had been king. He needed to be given enough authority to make his abdication valid, and yet he was no longer to be king himself. It’s an odd scene and a lovely one for anyone playing Richard, with lots of possibilities for mischief. Oliver Rix did a fine job, both in terms of this production and in finding his own way through the scene. For “Seize the crown”, Richard put the crown on his own head, standing with his back to the rest of the court, and the implication was obvious. Bolingbroke hesitated for a few moments before approaching him and reaching out to take the crown, but Richard pulled his head away before he could lay a finger on it. Both Richard and Bolingbroke had both hands on the crown for the “Ay. No.” bit, and after taking it back to himself, Richard tucked the crown under his arm for the “see how I will undo myself” part.

Having crowned Henry IV and placed the sceptre in his hands, Richard knelt down to him. Henry was clearly uncomfortable with his new role, although that might have been due to Richards presence; he handed over the sceptre and took off the crown within moments of receiving them. “And yet not greatly good” was an aside to the audience – we laughed – and it was only when he requested a mirror that Richard spotted Bagot hiding behind some of the other courtiers – another reminder of betrayal. Bagot was evidently unhappy with the situation too, and ran off stage after Richard’s comments about his followers having flattered him. The Percys were vocally active again when Henry made his comment about the “shadow of [Richard’s] sorrow”, finding this a very funny and witty comment – flatterers abound in this court too. The Abbot of Westminster pretended to clean up the broken glass after the king(s) had left.

Again the queen had only one attendant as she waited to speak to Richard, although there seemed to be just as many in the rabble who were running across the stage. Richard was thrown to the ground by them, and Salisbury had to draw his sword to keep them off while the ex-king and his queen shared a semi-private moment. These two were very aware that they were kissing in a public place, but love overcame their discomfort, and despite the jeering of the rabble they kept the clinch going for a while.

The next scene was at the Duke of York’s place, with the description of the coronation procession. When Aumerle turned up, he was tucking the incriminating conspiracy letter away as he came on stage, turning his back in a vain attempt to conceal what he was doing. Given that there was at least six inches of cream-coloured parchment sticking out from his green shirt, the odds of this being a successful ruse were slim to negligible; a six-year-old could have done better.

We did laugh when York took his slippers off to get his boots on and exposed the hole in his sock – deliberate, or a wardrobe malfunction? We may never know. York’s rejection of Aumerle came across as a mirror image of his earlier rejection by Aumerle, and again the themes of betrayal and rejection were reinforced. The scene at court with the kneeling Duke, Duchess and Aumerle was much funnier than before. The Duchess had a riding crop, and laid into her husband when she finally arrived – good job those clothes were so thick. After issuing his pardon – for the second time! – Henry helped York up first so that he could confer with him about the conspiracy and dealing with the rest of the traitors.

At Pomfret, Richard possibly stood up a little earlier than last time, but perhaps we were simply more familiar with what we were seeing. The groom just touched Richard’s face this time, but it was still a moving moment. Aumerle stabbed Richard in the back, literally as well as metaphorically.

In the final scene, all was going well until Aumerle dragged in the dead Richard’s coffin. The other lords backed away from Henry liked he was radioactive, and Henry just stood there, looking at the coffin while Richard’s ghost came onto the balcony and stood by the throne, looking at him. York was sobbing by the coffin, another father who had lost a son.

We applauded loudly and long, and the afternoon was rounded off by Greg Doran coming on to make a short speech. He praised the understudy cast and called on Owen Horsley (so that’s his name) to take a bow in recognition of his hard work as assistant director. Owen was still nervous but did as he was told, and we gave him lots of applause as well. Greg also took the opportunity to plug the live broadcast, making a little joke about the audience only being at this understudy run because we couldn’t get tickets to see the main show – we laughed. It was nice to see the assistant director and understudies being acknowledged so positively by the main director (not to mention the Artistic Director), and thoroughly deserved.

© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

One comment on “Richard II (Understudies) – October 2013

  1. Peter Serres says:

    My historical reading confirms your impression that “good old Sir Thomas Erpingham” who lends his cloak to Henry V IS the same person. Henry V also includes a farewell appearance by Aumerle (as Duke of York). Scrope of Masham, who is a later husband of the Duchess of Gloucester, is in the scene of the conspirators. Falsely passed off as the mother of one conspirator but passed by as the wife of another: it seems to cancel out

    According to John Julius Norwich (Shakespeares Kings, 1999), there WAS a Glove-Flinging incident when Richard was taking his revenge on the Arundel / Gloucester faction.in 1397 (before the play opens). He doesn’t mention another such incident again at the time of the deposition although there were accusations and counter-accusations about Gloucester’s death. The play conflates the events of several days in September and October 1399. Technically, Bolingbroke’s accession was an Usurpation, which is why there’s such an emphasis on Richard’s misdemeanours, showing him unfit to rule. There’s the Paper produced by Northumberland which never actually gets signed. In terms of birthright, the Mortimers were the designated heirs in the event of Richard dying childless, a distinct possibility since Q Isabella was only a girl of 11, married as part of the glue of a peace treaty with France. You may remember that there’s a scene in Henry VI, Part 1 which shows Mortimer, in effect, bequeathing his claim to Richard, Duke of York.

    If there’s a Q & A session on 20 December, you may get the chance to raise a question about the gloves. I would assume it’s the way the play was structured from the materials in Holinshed or Halls Chronicle, adding the Flying Gloves as a bit of extra drama.

    All these digressions are endlessly fascinating. Never forget though that the opening scene of Henry Vi, Part 1 covers events that would require a timespan of about thirty years but it skips the burning of Joan of Arc; a cut-and-paste job for later use., If there’s any serious conflict between history and the theatre, just remember – The Play’s The Thing.

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