By William Shakespeare
Directed by Greg Doran
Venue: Barbican Theatre
Date: Wednesday 15th January 2014
Although we hadn’t been able to choose our seats for this performance, we were pleased with our allocation which put us on the far end of the front row on the right. I had thought the production might seem rather 2D after the thrust stage in Stratford, but from our angle there wasn’t a lot of difference. The small stub of stage that pushes forward in the Barbican was almost level with our seats, so it was similar to sitting by the right walkway in the RST, down to the occasional blocked view as an actor stood in the ‘corner’ of the stage. Fortunately this wasn’t much of a problem today, and the benefits of being so close and seeing the action in even more detail far outweighed the minor inconvenience.
The set and staging hadn’t changed much, so I’ll get that out of the way to begin with. The cathedral space at the start looked even more imposing than before; it seemed higher than I remember. The bereaved Duchess of Gloucester came on alone this time, but approached a monk who had entered before her, whether to ask for assistance or for permission to sit by the coffin I don’t know. He helped her on her way, and she bowed to him before she sat down on the stool. While the side lights were still on at this point, the overhead lights had been turned off, so for once the audience grasped that the performance had started and were quiet through the beautiful singing – bliss.
When Bolingbroke arrived I realised he was now clean-shaven, perhaps to differentiate him more clearly from Mowbray? The entrance ramp from below was missing in this setup so they had to use the sides instead, which worked just fine. Northumberland was up on the left balcony when he spoke to Richard and the queen, Bushy and Green were dragged on from the right hand side for their execution, and Aumerle, York and Mrs York used a door on the left-hand side to visit the new king. The cell under the stage was still in use, but there wasn’t a reflection that we could see when the panel over it rose up. There was just the opening lines, a rattle of chains and then Richard’s head popping up to finish the speech off.
This was the weakest part of the production for me. This choice of staging detached Richard from the audience during his soliloquy and made the scene much less interesting. Previous productions have recognised that it’s the climax of the play, the zenith of Richard’s understanding and the nadir of his physical existence, but in this version it just skimmed through quickly and left little impression other than the rattling of chains and the unmasking of the murderer. David Tennant is capable of better, and had he been given more opportunity to connect with the audience in this scene the production might have reached even greater heights. Even so, it’s still a very good interpretation overall, and one that will be remembered for a long time.
And that’s it for the definite changes from Stratford. The actors had to walk a long way from the wings to get onto the acting space proper, but it’s the same in the RST, although they were visible to the audience earlier in the Barbican. The performances had naturally come on somewhat for the extra practice, and from our new angle I spotted several additional details which may or may not have been present in previous performances. As the characters came onto stage at the start, the queen was the first to arrive after the widowed Duchess; she stood briefly, looking at her aunt-in-law as if she wanted to do or say something, but decided not to and moved away to the left. After Richard’s entrance, I was aware that he had deliberately chosen this occasion of family grief to deal with royal family business, a most inappropriate and insensitive choice. The quarrel between Bolingbroke and Mowbray was loud and vigorous, and when Bolingbroke launched into specific accusations against Mowbray the Duchess of Gloucester looked round, disturbed and bewildered at the noise. She bent back over the coffin a few moments later to continue grieving, and I noticed that Richard came and stood behind her with his hand on her back, presumably offering some kind of comfort (bit late for that).
Richard’s reference to his “upright soul” suggested the high opinion he has of himself, clearly believing that, as God’s anointed, he can do no wrong. Despite this elevated position, he was unable to persuade the two contenders to forego their fight, with Bolingbroke triumphantly holding up Mowbray’s glove as if it were a trophy. “Incision” was pronounced with less separation between the vowels, and didn’t generate its own laugh – that had to wait for the punchline “no time to bleed”. “We were not born to sue, but to command” – on the last word Richard struck the coffin with the butt of his sceptre, another highly inappropriate action on his part.
Jane Lapotaire as the Duchess again brought tears to my eyes during her speech – what a class act she is. Moving on to the duel scene, there was applause from the stage audience after Bolingbroke’s speech, but none after Mowbray’s, emphasising the difference between the two camps. Richard kissed Bolingbroke on the lips when he came down to bid his cousin a fond farewell; Mowbray received nothing but a cool glance, and had clearly expected more.
The duel nearly took place today. The combatants took a while to size each other up, while Richard paced the balcony above, and there was an actual clash of swords before the king threw down his warder. From this angle I could see how worried and unhappy John of Gaunt looked as Richard went through the details of the exile ruling, while the fixed gaze between Richard and Mowbray, after Bolingbroke’s proposal that Mowbray confess, was much more intense and lasted for longer than I remember. When Richard reduced Bolingbroke’s sentence by four years, I caught some glances between the cronies which suggested they didn’t think it a good idea, but being experienced sycophants they quickly put smiles on their faces and applauded the king’s graciousness.
John of Gaunt’s speech was well delivered, with plenty of nodding and similar agreement from his brother the Duke of York. For “this happy breed of men”, Gaunt went to stand by Northumberland and put an arm around him. When Richard turned up, I was very aware of the generation gap, with the senior characters being so much older than Richard and his friends. Naturally the younger generation would be sick of hearing that things were so much better back in the day, while the old folks would find it hard to accommodate the younger generation’s attitudes. Of course, in this play the younger generation are clearly making a mess of running the country, spending money they don’t have and expecting to get more from the commons whenever they want – why does that sound so familiar? – so the old ‘uns have a point.
To begin with, Richard’s reactions to John of Gaunt’s tirade were quite gentle: he simply shook his head and smiled indulgently at the nonsense these old folk come out with. But as the rant went on Richard, amazed at Gaunt’s effrontery, became angrier and ended up grabbing Gaunt by the collar and threatening him in no uncertain terms. Richard was much more relaxed when York finally stood up and had a go at the king’s behaviour, which indicated that York was known to be a bit wishy-washy and his words were never going to have much impact.
Bagot and Green were soon back on stage with armfuls of loot, and after the king made a quick inspection of the riches, the two cronies left with their haul. Bushy came on a little later, and just after he left with instructions to go to the Earl of Wiltshire, Richard tried to call him back for another message but was too late. Richard snapped his fingers at Gaunt’s entourage for someone else to do his bidding, and Northumberland stepped forward ever so slightly to be told that the Duke of York was regent in Richard’s absence. Northumberland was gently polite, suggesting his underlying dislike of Richard.
In the garden, Bushy and Bagot ran on laughing and giggling, but stopped abruptly when they saw the queen and hid the perspective pictures behind their backs. This suggested that they had been looking at porno perspectives, which was confirmed when they hastily removed one of the pictures they were showing to the queen. York’s mistake in calling the queen his sister was understandable when he’d only just heard of the Duchess’ death, and I’ve realised that Shakespeare very cleverly shows these older characters making mistakes of this kind – the Duchess herself complained that she couldn’t remember what she was going to say. York added to this by putting extra emphasis on “Come, cousin”, to show that he was working hard to get it right. Earlier on, he also pointed upwards for “Comfort’s in heaven” and downwards for “and we are on the earth”, which helped to emphasise that point. The cronies were left alone to plan their getaways; I noticed their double belts this time which looked like a fashion statement instead of the necessary equipment for a knight to carry his sword.
I forgot to mention in previous notes that Hotspur had a northern accent, which I would guess was a deliberate choice. The Duke of York didn’t look entirely unhappy at the prospect of removing some of the king’s cronies, though when it came to Bushy and Green being dragged on to the stage looking even bloodier and tattier than before, he was back to his worried self again. Bolingbroke looked at his uncle on “this and much more”, suggesting that he was concerned to justify himself to York for the time being.
On Richard’s return, I could see some glances passing between the Bishop and Aumerle during the king’s invocation for the earth itself to fight against Bolingbroke. There was a greater sense of Richard’s ordinariness when he sat on the ground and told them “I live with bread like you, feel want” etc.; quite a jump from “The breath of worldly men cannot depose the deputy elected by the Lord” but David Tennant managed it very well.
There was an exclamation from York when Bolingbroke was telling Northumberland what to say to Richard, and this led to Bolingbroke adding “the which, how far off from the mind of Bolingbroke it is…”; the addendum appeased his uncle. As the bridge was lowered down for Richard’s appearance, I could see the singers on one side and some of Richard’s supporters on the other, all standing sideways on with their hands together outstretched in prayer, like angels in a mediaeval picture.
After the interval, the queen played her little game with her attendants as before, and both she and they were smiling at it. There was laughter in the audience at the queen not being able to decide between a tale of sorrow or one of joy, and even more when one of her ladies flung her arms wide when offering to sing a song. The young gardener was polishing an apple as he came on, and left it on the wheelbarrow when he was sent to bind up the apricots. Both gardeners were uneasy in their dealings with the queen, glancing at each other when she asked why they were saying that Richard had been deposed.
During the glove-throwing section of the next scene, I wondered if there was any greater significance to the accusations against Aumerle, other than removing one of Richard’s supporters within the nobility. Aumerle could have been another claimant to the throne, and many a usurper has removed those in the past. There’s also the possibility that he too was involved in Thomas of Woodstock’s death. In any case, there was a strong sense of politics at work and sides being taken, with the gloves coming off in more senses than one. And as usual they gave us all a good laugh or two.
During the Bishop of Carlisle’s rant, Northumberland whispered to Bolingbroke, who nodded; I assume this conference was about arresting the Bishop for “capital treason”. Despite this arrest, and the political manoeuvring that went on before it, I had a strong sense that the coronation process was going a bit pear-shaped, which is presumably why Bolingbroke decided to play what he probably thought was his ace-in-the-hole: Richard. Not the wisest choice, as it turned out. The ex-king messed with his head and showed him up in front of everyone, taking his own sweet time to transfer over the symbols of kingly authority. Bolingbroke assumed Richard would hand the crown over immediately, and made to go back to the throne with it, but Richard held on and kept him at the front of the stage.
The scene in the street was much as before, with Richard showing the queen his manacles on “shows us but this”. In the Duke of York’s palace, Aumerle came on reading his letter, saw his parents ahead of him and stuffed it under his shirt. The end that was sticking out he covered with one hand, but when he used that hand to make a gesture, the letter was exposed. With the plot exposed as well, the whole family hightailed it down to London. Aumerle arrived first, but just after locking the door, which was hidden behind a panel, York arrived, screaming treason and other dire warnings. Henry took out his sword and held Aumerle off with it while he opened the door to let York in. York was puffing and panting when he came in, but still had enough breath to denounce his son. When York complained about his son being pardoned, Aumerle grabbed his father’s robes in supplication, but his father wasn’t inclined to mercy, unlike the king. The Duchess livened things up, with her use of the riding crop on her husband, her arms spread wide in supplication and her general persistence.
In the cell scene, Richard was shocked by the groom’s hug, slightly appalled at being touched in this intimate manner by a common person. When Aumerle dragged the unopened coffin on stage this time, I was thinking that there was nothing to show that Richard had been murdered. The coffin was unopened – so no evidence that Richard’s body was even in it – and there’s always the chance he died of natural causes (a slim chance, I grant you). This is what comes of ditching characters and scenes so carelessly (i.e. Exton). Even so, Henry banished Aumerle, and found himself losing support as the nobles backed away from him. As he stood by the coffin, Richard snuck onto the balcony and stood by the throne, but wasn’t easy to see until the spotlight hit him – we knew where to look. The audience were very happy, and made that fact known in the usual way.
Apart from the pleasure of seeing this production again in a different theatre, it was an absolute joy to see the RSC back at the Barbican. Despite the complaints from some folk, we loved the place and were very sorry when they gave it up. Today’s performance has whetted our appetite for more, and we’ll be booking up for future productions once the tickets become available. As far as this production goes, it was as good as it could be given the directorial choices, and certainly added to our understanding of the play, but the relative weakness of the minor characters early on plus a weaker Bolingbroke than usual means that we wouldn’t rate it as highly as some other productions we’ve seen.
© 2014 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me