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Richard II

Who Knew Richard Could Be Such a Force

Royal Shakespeare Company, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Monday, December 2, 2013, "Live from Stratford-upon-Avon," Folger Theatre

Directed by Gregory Doran

Some see a beauty mark. Some see a mole. Some think it a zit. And sometimes, that's the last impression, as it is with this otherwise true-to-the-text, magnificently crafted production of William Shakespeare's Richard II starring David Tennant. After wowing us with his impeccable handling of Shakespeare's script, director Gregory Doran chooses to throw us for a loop with his ending. If it's shock value you want, a giant zit on an otherwise fair piece of beauty is one way to go. But if it's Shakespeare you want, it's just a pimple in the end.

Long-haired Richard in wrinkled white robe and gold cross on a chain around his neck looks into a round mirror he holds with his left hand as, behind him, Bolingbrok in armored breast plate and orange tunic stares off in irritation, and furth in the bacgkround we see York, a page holding a pillow with crown and scepter, and the throne.
Richard (David Tennant) stares at his reflection in a mirror while York (Oliver Ford Davies, left) watches and Bolingbroke (Nigel Lindsay) waits in the RSC production of Richard II. Photo by Kwame Lestrade, Royal Shakespeare Company.

This Royal Shakespeare production, which ran in Stratford-upon-Avon this fall and just opened in London, debuted the company's "Live from Stratford-upon-Avon" program of broadcasting to cinemas and other venues, such as the Folger Theatre where we watched it. A re-teaming of RSC artistic director Doran and RSC staple Tennant, the most popular of BBC TV's Dr. Whos, and the first entry of Doran's intent to run through Shakespeare's history cycles, it was a perfect choice for launching "Live from Stratford-upon-Avon."

Doran is a Shakespearean helmer at the top of his game. He takes this all-verse, gorgeously wordy political drama and turns it into a taut, character-driven stage noir. He does so by keeping most of the play intact, by mining the verse for personalities, emotions, and motions, and by casting Tennant, in the title role. Doran makes the opening challenge scene electric, the Coventry tournament scene emotional, the queen's garden scene funny and sad, and the triple Yorks' triple begging scene hilarious (played with no hamming but expert comedy by Oliver Ford Davies as the Duke, Marty Cruickshank as the Duchess, and Oliver Rix as their son, Aumerle). And, hallelujah!, he keeps in the gage-casting scene and proves it to be one of Shakespeare's golden moments, combining comic behavior with dramatic history in a scene of manly histrionics, all in blank verse.

Such is the purity of this production that the absence of act five, scene four, is noticeable. That scene has Exton, making his first appearance in the play, interpreting Bolingbroke's "Have I no friend will rid me of this living fear?" as a decree to kill the imprisoned Richard. We soon find out why Doran cut the scene. Spoiler alert (but frankly it's been done before as Doran may have stolen this idea along with some other textual colorings from the Hollow Crown version of Richard II): Richard in Pomfret prison is attacked by men wearing hoods, and when he unhoods the murderer who thrusts the fatal blow, Richard—and we—discover it is Aumerle. Aumerle had been one of Richard's closest associates, and he helped spearhead a plot to assassinate the new-crowned Henry IV (Bolingbroke) but is pardoned by the king in that triple York begging scene. "Cousin, adieu," Bolingbroke says to Aumerle at the end of the pardon scene: "Your mother well hath prayed, and prove you true." Boy, does he ever prove true—to Bolingbroke, at least.

That Aumerle (rather than Exton) kills Richard in this production does elicit audience reaction: shock, even an "oh my!" as in, "how could he?" That is apparently the reaction Doran wants here, but it certainly is not the reaction Shakespeare was striving for. He was not writing a play about a conflicted young man who gets mired in absolutist principles at the cost of pragmatic policy. That seems to be the portrayal Doran intends, and that is so 21st century, I grant—as is a cheaply won gotcha. Shakespeare in these later scenes, though, is profiling the nature of political intrigue, the winking ways that a master manipulator gets things done without blowing his cover, and the unwitting trail of victims that practice leaves behind. That may be so 14th century or 16th century, but it is also so 21st century. It's timeless. It's dangerous (still is).

That is what Doran's take on Richard II otherwise ultimately comes down to. These are all dangerous men and women (save for the freshly charming, winningly innocent queen played by Emma Hamilton). Their politics are, literally, a blood sport. Witness what happens when, after King Richard interrupts their trial by combat at Coventry and banishes both, Bolingbroke urges Mowbray to "Confess thy treasons ere thou fly this realm." At the heart of that charge of treason is the murder of Thomas Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester, whom Mowbray, at the least, allowed to be offed on behalf of Richard. Antony Byrne as Mowbray walks across the stage and stares long and hard at Richard—and Tennant stares piercingly back, worried that Mowbray is about to rat him out but determined to bring down divine-right punishment on Mowbray if he does. This pause is so thick with suspense you can feel it in a theater 3,584 miles away. "No, Bolingbroke," Mowbray finally says, breaking the tension. "If ever I were traitor, my name be blotted from the book of life, and I from heaven banished as from hence!" He speaks true, even if he did kill Woodstock, for he was serving his king, and we see him come to that conclusion rather than cowering for his life.

The backstory of Woodstock's murder was common knowledge to Elizabethan audiences, thanks to an anonymous play called Woodstock that was one of Shakespeare's sources for Richard II. It's an arcane bit of history for modern audiences, but it governs the plot of Richard II through the first act, albeit surreptitiously. Doran brings this backstory to the fore without altering any lines or interpolating anything from Woodstock. This production opens with Woodstock's funeral, the coffin placed center stage and the duke's widow weeping at the coffin. In pairs, the various lords enter to do honor to the casket. Then enters Richard II, Tennant dressed in white robes with a Yosemite Falls of hair cascading well below his shoulders, looking very Jesus. He completely ignores the coffin and widow and, speaking the play's opening line, gets right down to the business of mediating the rivalry between Bolingbroke and Mowbray. The only time he acknowledges Woodstock's coffin is to bang his scepter on it in perturbation when he shouts, "We were not born to sue, but to command." (Jane Lapotaire as the Duchess of Gloucester would remain on stage with brother-in-law John of Gaunt for scene two, a scene too many productions cut but one that clearly establishes the king's dubious past and perilous future.)

This is not a whining, aloof, uncertain, or effeminate Richard, as I've seen others play him. Tennant seems to have based his Richard on his last scene when he kills two of his would-be murderers in two lines—two lines James Bond might say: "Villain, thine own hands yields thy death's instrument" and "Go thou, and fill another room in hell." This Richard doesn't have a character arc; from that opening scene at Gloucester's funeral to the end and even in the abdication scene where he is stripped of his political power but still retains his psychological strength, he is an imperial force to be reckoned with. It's not Richard who changes; it's his circumstances. Always moving with prowling energy, Tennant's Richard is ever a threat and easily the most dangerous man on the stage. Assisted by wimpy playfellows Bushy, Bagot, and Greene (comic gadflies as played by, respectively, Sam Marks, Jake Mann, and Marcus Griffiths), Richard pursues his whims while trampling over others not because he's oblivious but because he can. Rather than a careless ruler, he is a despotic one, and that ultimately is what does him in.

Yet, we end up feeling for him. That may be on the sheer power of Tennant's acting. His verse readings are pure yet full of surprises. He can turn mundane lines into hissing threats or great comedy, as in derisively describing Bolingbroke as "but my father's brother's son." All those great speeches he gives flow together like windblown New England maple leaves forming impressionistic art on the lawn. When he's on stage, you can't take your eyes off him, such is his magnetism, such is the all-in intensity of his portrayal, such is his hair. One of the greatest Shakespearean performances I have ever seen is Derek Jacobi's Richard II for the BBC/Time-Life series, a performance that more than one critic has called definitive. Tennant's Richard strides onto the same tier as Jacobi's and looks bemused at his predecessor's meekness.

How, then, can a Bolingbroke compete? Nigel Lindsay does. With sheer vocal force and bulked-up carriage (he reminds me of a warrior dwarf from The Hobbit, though he's actually taller than Tennant), Lindsay exudes a bravura spirit that makes him so bold he would challenge Mowbray before this king, return early from banishment when Richard robs him of his inheritance, and ascend the throne though it be deemed a great sin. He and Mowbray could be brothers, so alike in appearance and attitude. Lindsay's Bolingbroke, therefore, is not cast as a bad guy or even a master politician—until the end, and then we can only look back and see that he has been all along. What we thought was bonhomie spirit, was, in fact, Bolingbroke manipulating us, the audience (exchanging Aumerle for Exton blurs this vision a bit).

All of these personality threads entangle in the deposition scene in Parliament. The Bishop of Carlisle (Jim Hooper) blocks Bolingbroke's path to the throne with his crook to give his dire prophecy speech. So, Lindsay's Bolingbroke decides, then and there, to take another route: "Fetch hither Richard, that in common view he may surrender, and so we shall proceed without suspicion." That this may not have been the plan all along is an interpretation I've not seen before, and yet Richard endorses it with his first line upon entering: "Alack, why am I sent for to a king, before I have shook off the regal thoughts wherewith I reigned?" In this context, Richard's own self-centered nature takes control of the moments that follow, his imperialism holding sway, and Tennant draws many laughs out of his lines while Lindsay elicits his fair share through his exasperated reactions.

Gaunt in bedclothes, left arm up, right arm clutching his stomach, speaks as York stands next to him and others watch in the background.
The dying John of Gaunt (Michael Pennington) spews his anger over what King Richard has done to "this sceptered isle" to his brother, the Duke of York (Oliver Ford Davies, right) as, from left, Northumberland (Sean Chapman) and Willoughby (Youssef Kerkour) watch in the RSC production of Richard II. Photo by Photo by Kwame Lestrade, Royal Shakespeare Company.

The play's most famous speech, of course, is "This sceptered isle," spoken by John of Gaunt, played by RSC veteran Michael Pennington. I have seen him perform so many of Shakespeare's great speeches in person, but this one doesn't stand out. That's because Pennington keeps the character true, a dying man angered by the king's national debt-building policies, and he rambles on in anger, which, frankly, is how Shakespeare wrote the speech. Pennington's sharp talents truly come to the fore after the speech, after Richard has arrived and Gaunt lays into his monarch without a care for the king's sense of divine right. "O, spare me not, my brother's Edward's son," he says, and this not only is payback for Richard's similar reference to his own son, Bolingbroke, it is a reference to Richard's father, the famous Black Prince, that is much sharper than any weapon Richard could wield.

Star performances are also turned in by set designer Stephen Brimson Lewis and lighting designer Tim Mitchell. They turn the stage into a screen for various abstract designs during scene changes and different surfaces for the scenes themselves, and they use a clever projection system at the back of the stage to create immense rooms and views to the horizon. For Pomfret, a huge trapdoor opens to reveal Richard chained to a platform isolated in a moat with a stairway descending down into the depths like an Escher drawing. Atmosphere is an important member of this cast, and Doran's creative crew generates living moods.

Nevertheless, it's the actors drawing out subtle meanings in Shakespeare's text that establish the attitude of this production, where history, drama, and human nature meet in a grapple for power. It's a play-long gotcha that needs no twist ending.

Eric Minton
December 7, 2013

Special Note

RSC's "Live from Stratford-upon-Avon" joins the likes of the National Theater's "NT Live" and Shakespeare's Globe On Screen (as well as New York's Metropolitan Opera "Live in HD") in the business of broadcasting performances of stage productions to cinemas across England and the United States. In this debut effort, RSC hits a grand slam. Tracking cameras walk around scenes or hone in on particular characters or points of action. Sometimes we are in the audience (we can even see a guy wearing his hat in front of us), sometimes we become a character on the stage. Close-ups are used sparingly and most judiciously, and each scene begins with an establishing view that allows us to see the stage itself perform. Then the camera acts as a natural attention span for us, focusing on what counts most in each moment.

With camera work that is both unobtrusive and an art form in its own right, this first foray into such broadcasts establishes RSC instantly as the master of the medium.

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