Richard II – November 2013

Experience: 9/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Gregory Doran

Venue: RST

Date: Thursday 7th November 2013

Prime seats tonight, looking straight down the centre aisle. As we suspected, the production had shifted up a gear, and tonight’s performance was a huge improvement on the preview we saw. The imbalances we’d seen before had gone, with strong acting all round and more detail in the performances, and they also brought out much more of the humour in the play which usually indicates that the cast have settled in. Richard’s hair seemed to be behaving better – David Tennant looked uncomfortable with it last time – and Bolingbroke had toned down his barrow boy accent to a sensible level. There were no significant changes to the staging that I saw, but I was reminded of several details which I hadn’t noted last time, so here goes.

Aumerle and his mother came on together for the opening church scene, and both bowed to Bolingbroke over the coffin. Both John of Gaunt and the Duke of York comforted their sister, the Duchess of Gloucester, after their arrival. When Bolingbroke made the accusation against Mowbray – that he had plotted the Duke of Gloucester’s death – the Duke of York escorted the queen and her attendants off stage; clearly not a situation at which ladies should be present.

I was sobbing early tonight; Jane Lapotaire’s speech as the Duchess of Gloucester was very moving. From an early stage I was much more aware of the subtle ways in which the rival factions were shown to us, with the supporters of Richard and Bolingbroke ranged behind their man as often as possible and plenty of indicators such as applause, heckling and laughter to indicate their sycophantic flattery. There were very few people to be trusted in this production. Richard’s decision to descend and greet Bolingbroke before the fight raised a ripple of applause, and I noticed that Richard stood up and paced across the balcony before the fight began, suggesting his concern. I also spotted that the Bishop of Carlisle was part of the huddle discussing possible options to replace the duel. Mowbray took a very long look at Richard before declining Bolingbroke’s suggestion that he confess, and at the end of the scene I was struck by the fact that only Gaunt and Bolingbroke seem to have any sort of decent father/son relationship.

After John of Gaunt’s death, the Duke of York knelt to pray, and his son Aumerle helped him up just as Richard was confiscating his dead uncle’s property. York’s tirade was more powerful than before, and made Richard’s decision to appoint him as Regent while he himself was away in Ireland all the more absurd. While Bushy and Bagot were consoling the queen, the perspective trick seemed to work a bit better, and we got the impression that one of the pictures was a bit smutty – they whisked it away quickly when they realised what it was and before the queen could have a good look. Other than that one, the queen reacted more to the pictures, and their conversation made more sense.

With Bolingbroke landed in England, I saw a definite smirk on Hotspur’s face when the Duke of York, after a pause, announced himself “neuter” in the quarrel. The Duke was very unhappy with the arrest of Bushy and Green, but did nothing to intervene. He approved of Bolingbroke’s message to the king initially, but reacted to the veiled threat it contained until Bolingbroke’s final disavowal of any violent intent eased his mind again. In between these scenes, Salisbury’s “call back yesterday, bid time return” echoed Gaunt’s riposte to Richard about not being able to extend his life by one day.

At Flint castle, Aumerle paused during the line “all the number of his fair demands shall be accomplish’d without contradiction”, seemingly unhappy that Bolingbroke was getting what he wanted. This time, when Richard playfully pretended to put the crown on Aumerle’s head, I had the impression that he wanted anyone other than Bolingbroke to have it.

After the interval, the queen was having a little game with her attendants. She would take a step, then go back, and her ladies followed her every move. In the deposition scene, Aumerle was ashamed when Richard looked at him, and Richard’s voice was a little weak for “Here, cousin”, so he repeated it more clearly. He stood in front of the throne as he began his long speech renouncing his kingship, finishing up kneeling in front of Bolingbroke, now Henry IV. Bagot gave Richard the mirror and then wanted to leave, but Percy stopped him and indicated he was to pick up the discarded paper (the list of Richard’s crimes). Richard was conveyed off stage by both Salisbury and Hotspur; probably neither one trusted the other to do the job.

When the queen met Richard in the street, the rabble were just as rowdy as before, and this time they cheered when Northumberland announced that the queen was being sent back to France. At the Duke of York’s palace, Aumerle did at least try to hide his letter by putting an arm across his chest. There was a real tussle between him and his father to get the letter – Oliver Ford Davies is stronger than he looks – and soon the race was on to get to Henry first. Aumerle came up the ramp to speak to Henry, and went back down again to lock the door. When York arrived, he was panting from the effort of climbing up to the stage level but still managed to get his twopenn’orth in. When his wife opened her arms wide to plead to the king, York opened his wide as well, in case he might be seen to be lacking in sincerity – very funny.

With Aumerle pardoned many times over, Henry was keen to get York’s advice on how to deal with the traitors; suddenly York is a competent advisor on that score? He wasn’t much help to Richard when that king was off in Ireland. The scene in Pomfret was as before, and I found the clanking of chains through Richard’s speech both unhelpful and unnecessary. On unmasking his killer, Richard’s line “thy fierce hand” emphasised “thy”, indicating the personal nature of this final betrayal.

Back in London, Henry was organising things nicely. There was less of a change in his accent this time, which made him more believable as a potential king, and his justice in dealing with the Bishop of Carlisle brought nods from the Duke of York. The banishing of Aumerle brought the play full circle, and left York kneeling on the stage, sobbing, while Henry stood by the coffin and Richard’s ghost walked over to the throne and remained there, looking at his successor.

The changes that have been made for this production are growing on me, although I still think it’s difficult to remove this play entirely from the ‘cycle’ mentality. There are so many references both to the back story of the Duke of Gloucester’s death before the action begins and to prophecies of future carnage and bloodshed that it’s hard to deal with it as a separate piece of work. After all, Shakespeare had already written a fair chunk of his histories by the time he wrote this, so presumably he intended the connections. And since this production has emphasised this by placing the Duke of Gloucester’s coffin on stage at the start, it could seem a little disingenuous to claim that the play is being looked at in isolation. However, with such good performances from some of our best verse speakers, I’m inclined to ignore this issue altogether and just enjoy myself.

© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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