Richard II – January 2014

Experience: 8/10

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.

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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.

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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.

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Richard II – October 2013

Experience: 7/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Greg Doran

Venue: RST

Date: Wednesday 16th October 2013

It’s early days yet – tomorrow is the press night – and while some areas are patchy and uneven, there are good performances and good ideas which should become more pronounced with practice. The set worked very well for the most part, and this production has the loveliest music I’ve heard for a long time at the RSC. It’s a promising start to Greg’s reign proper, and with David Tennant in the lead role, at least they’re assured of a sell-out run.

The basic set was largely visible during the director’s talk beforehand – more on that story later. A series of screens overlapped behind the thrust, giving a false perspective. They were coloured blue and shimmered, which turned out to be a 3D effect; when the opening images of the inside of a church were projected onto them, the resulting effect was of a vast Gothic chamber – very impressive. Thin metal pillars, like bars, continued the effect, and coming forward from these there were stumpy pillars hanging over the front part of the stage, so it really felt like we were in a huge cathedral space, lit softly to give a misty gloom.

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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

Richard II – January 2008

8/10

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 ilovetheatre.me

Richard II – July 2007

10/10

By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Michael Boyd

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Monday 30th July 2007

This could take a while. It was a great production, and some great performances. Well, actually all the cast were great, and I liked lots about the staging and ideas and echoes of earlier/later themes. What’s coming out of this year’s work is the element of time – plays written earlier which are later chronologically, and the echoes backwards and forwards.

Before each of these plays, we were treated to the usual announcement about switching off mobile phones, etc. A different actor came on each night, and there were some entertaining variations on the theme. Tonight’s announcemen was pretty straightforward, although he did advise us not to switch off pacemakers!

The start of the play was good. The other characters, led by Bagot, all came on in stately procession, moving slowly, and performing some kind of stately dance, with lots of bowing and courtesies, while Richard II walked on through the auditorium, accepting all the bowing and scraping as nothing less than his due. Jonathan Slinger was done up as Elizabeth I – effectively Queen Richard II. He played the part as very effeminate, very wimpish (I could understand why some of the hetero lords wanted rid of him) and very immature. I was thinking it might be difficult to move from there to Richard’s later awareness of the superficiality of it all, but he handled that very well, with the gradual stripping away of his finery underlining the changes. There was still an element of petulance in his telling Percy that his cosy relationship with Henry IV wouldn’t last, but his desperate understanding of his situation in his prison cell was very moving. I became aware of how in Shakespeare’s time, not having decent TV, they might spend time comparing and contrasting situations, just for fun, and Richard’s forcing of the issue, then coming up with a very good metaphor for humanity and its foibles, worked very well.

Mowbray and Bolingbroke complimented the King at the opening to the dispute scene, and I felt Mowbray was trying to outdo Bolingbroke, reminiscent of the opening of King Lear. I couldn’t see Richard’s responses to much of the Bolingbroke/Mowbray dispute, but for once I was really sad to see him break up the fight. They’d set up two jousting horses (suspended saddles) and it looked like we might have some fun, but then Richard threw his baton at a lady in the front row and it was all over. [Turns out the jousting is specifically referenced in Henry IV part 2, so although cumbersome I suspect this may stay.]

Tonight we had a very good John of Gaunt pre-death scene. He came across as really ill, and it was all he could do to get his lines out. Not too surprising he didn’t last much longer. Richard was wonderfully temperamental – at first consoling, then snappy, then pious, then practical about nicking his dead uncle’s dosh and never mind the rightful heir.

There was some unexpected and presumably unwelcome audience participation tonight during the gardeners’ scene. The head gardener was John of Gaunt, still wearing the same clothes, so this was similar to when the dead bodies were recycled in the Henry VI trilogy. He sprayed some folk off to our right with water (he was carrying a hose) and Chuk Iwuji, as the other gardener, looked a bit too keen to use his shears. No dancing nun this time, sadly, but still a good scene overall, with some telling points made about the importance of managing the country well (one of Will’s hobby horses, that).

With Bolingbroke’s return, the difference between him and Richard is emphasised by his much plainer dress sense, and his refusal to be seduced by flattery. When Percy tried to brown-nose Henry about how his wonderful company made the long journey shorter, Henry just ignored him, and I fancied there was a slight look of distaste in his expression. He also communicates more directly and is far more business-like in his dealings. When he meets the Duke of York, tasked with protecting the realm while Richard is away, he gets a good telling off from his uncle for coming back, but then the Duke admits that he can’t do anything to stop him, so invites him in for dinner. I haven’t seen the character played as so weak before. He’s also in much more of a dither when trying to handle the crisis earlier, more so than I’ve seen before.

In the deposition scene, the passing of the crown was fine, with just enough of a lingering feel to it. If anything, Richard was more sparky than earlier, standing up for himself more now there’s nothing more to lose. He tore off his wig and wiped off his makeup as he deposes himself. I didn’t see that bit clearly, but then he has his own face as he looks in the mirror, which was a safety mirror so it didn’t shatter when he smashed it down. Later, for the farewell scene with his wife, there was some kind of dust raining down on his head for a long time – what was it? [sand, we discovered] I wondered how he could breathe and speak his lines. It did suggest a washing off of the anointing, and his transformation into a penitent.

During the second challenge scene, the vast number of gauntlets was really funny. It’s interesting that after accusing Mowbray, Henry now seems to be investigating what actually happened – or is it just a ploy to get rid of a political opponent? What is going on here?

For the Aumerle pardoning scene, it’s the first time I’ve seen other people come on stage with the Duke of York. Percy keeps the door shut on the Duchess, but you can’t keep Maureen Beattie off stage for long. (More than his life’s worth!) Richard Cordery as the Duke of York was glowering magnificently as his wife pleads for her son’s life. Even before he fell to his knees to plead against the pardon, he was well unhappy, and it showed.

Bagot took the role of murderer this time. He came down playing the piano, with a mask on. [Apparently the harness he had to wear meant a lot of talcum powder was used!] Chuk Iwuji played the groom, and there were three other knights with masks who came to kill the king, but he managed to fight them off, with Bagot killing him in the end. Richard’s dead body was dragged off by an arm and a leg, creating a swathe of blood on the stage – reminiscent of the pool of gore in the original Henry VI part 3. Lots of traitors’ heads were brought on in bags for the final scene and dumped in front of Henry, who was sitting on the steps which Richard stood on earlier.

Chuk Iwuji wafted around doing various messenger jobs, having started off as Thomas of Woodstock’s dead body, and this casting emphasised the haunting aspects of the play. Katy Stephens as the Duchess of Gloucester (still married to Chuk, I see) also pre-echoed the revenge theme with her tirade against her husband’s death.

Other things to mention: Richard had a lot of costume changes, reflecting both his descent from power and the opulence he lives in initially. The music was lovely, with some haunting singing which set up a good atmosphere for this staging. There was a strange light bulb sculpture – what was that for? It was interesting, but I’m not clear about its purpose.

I couldn’t possibly get down all my impressions of this performance, as there was so much detail, and so much I liked. I’m very much looking forward to seeing it again, and also seeing the way this play sets up the rest of the history cycle in these productions.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me