Richard II. Live relay at the Stephen Joseph Theatre Scarborough, from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre Stratford Upon Avon. 13-11-13

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Oliver Ford Davies as the Duke of York and David Tennant as Richard II.
Production photograph by Kwame Lestrade.

Richard II is a play that I am very fond of. Richard became king at the age of ten and the play provides a moving look at what this may do to a person who is forced to grow up only seeing himself through the warped perspective of a world where he is treated as a divinely ordained, all powerful king, while at the same time being forced to rely on others in order to fulfil that role. Richard discovers himself to be a flawed and vulnerable human being too late as the relentless real politik of the usurper Henry Bolingbroke destroys him and the prop of kingship- his only reality- is taken away. He is capricious, needy, childlike, arrogant, artistic, impulsive, petulant, a sensitive and thoughtful man at heart who would have been better suited to a life in the Arts than kingship. He is an easy target for both hangers on who want to take advantage of him and achieve favour and those enemies who are ruthless enough to take him down. This is a story of regime change and the toll it takes on those involved- above all the king himself- and it is told in some of the most beautiful poetry that Shakespeare ever wrote. It is a play that can break your heart.

You never hear the part of Richard being talked about as a “mountain” in the way that Hamlet or Lear are but looking back at that list of words I have picked out to describe aspects of his character it probably should be. I have seen some great Richards over the years. David Tennant has some natural advantages for the role. He has the physical presence, a natural elegance and beauty, that any actor playing Richard needs. He has a facility to speak the verse well and a quicksilver mind which makes the speeches easy to understand. Watching him we certainly believe in the less admirable aspects of Richard’s character. He is very good at the public Richard, imperious and spoiled to a fault and particularly good in the deposition scene. This is Richard’s parting shot at Bolingbroke, he is toying with him, making sure that he goes down under protest with all flags flying. It’s one of Shakespeare’s great scenes and he does it proud. What he didn’t quite reach, for me, was the sensitivity and poetry at the heart of Richard, an otherworldly quality which touches the heart. This is a very difficult balance to strike in order to turn the audience’s sympathies around. We should feel as ambivalent as Bolingbroke himself about Richard’s downfall. While we can see that a king who is utterly unsuitable to rule needs to go we also need to feel desperately sorry for him as a man, flawed like all of us, learning what he needs to know too late to allow him to become a wiser, humbler Richard.

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Jane Lapotaire as the Duchess of Gloucester.
Production photograph by Kwame Lestrade

Bolingbroke is played with uncompromising toughness by Nigel Lindsay. This is a real bruiser of a man and there is no doubt what he is after. It is only after he is sure of getting it that the doubts which will follow him for the rest of his life begin to grow. This is nicely suggested by the figure of Richard looking down on him once again at the end of the play. just one among many fine directorial touches from Greg Doran.

The real joy of this production for me were three great performances from three experienced Shakespearian actors, Jane Lapotaire as the Duchess of Gloucester, Michael Pennington as John of Gaunt and Oliver Ford Davies as the Duke of York. You could wait a lifetime to see those three parts played better. The grief and anger of the duchess was visible, real and searing and watching John of Gaunt tear into Richard after giving us the most beautifully spoken and heartfelt manifesto of his reasons for doing it in the this England speech was a very fine sight indeed. I would buy myself another ticket simply to see that again. I also liked Oliver Rix as Aumerle, York’s son. He is a confused young man, blinded by his love for Richard and the performance was very well thought through and strongly played.

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Michael Pennington as John of Gaunt.
Production photograph by Kwame Lestrade.

This is a very beautiful production to look at, made with enormous attention to detail from traditional old style theatrical magic, gobbos and gels given a new dimension by modern technology. The design by Steven Brimson-Lewis and lighting by Tim Mitchell gives us a shimmering cathedral made from light and curtains of beads, backlit undergrowth under a red moon, a cold blue shadowy prison and a moving platform right across the stage, a great asset for any production of this play, showing off Richard in his pomp giving great flexibility to the cast and director and moving the play along with great speed as a scene is transformed in an instant. It is the kind of setting that Shakespeare’s most beautiful verse deserves.

I would like to end by saying one or two things specific to the live relay. I am getting quite used to them now but this was the first I have seen that almost gave me the sense that I was sitting in the audience at the stunning new Royal Shakespeare Theatre. It was beautifully produced, pointing us towards key moments and reactions, as well as giving us a sense of the larger picture. I do wish though that the producer of it had remembered that the audience are not necessarily Shakespearean novices who need to be told what the opening scene contains as the lights go down. These live relays sell out weeks in advance and most of us are only there because money and/or time does not allow us to be there in the audience, sitting in the theatre as we would really like to be. Please don’t patronise us. I also wasn’t comfortable seeing two of the actors, Jane Lapotaire and Michael Pennington, interviewed live during the interval. They were charming, insightful and in Jane Lapotaire’s case very moving but it just wasn’t appropriate- even though their parts were over for the evening.

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Richard II. William Shakespeare. (Part of the 2012 BBC series The Hollow Crown.)

Ben Whishaw as Richard II. BBC image.

Richard II is a play which I know pretty well. I have studied it and it was the first Shakespeare that I ever saw on stage. I have seen it four times on stage altogether over the years and loved Derek Jacobi in the previous BBC version. Richard himself is a great part and none of my four stage Richards, Ian Richardson, Michael Pennington, Jeremy Irons, and Ralph Fiennes were a disappointment. I can still remember how wonderfully Ian Richardson played the deposition scene, and how moving Ralph Fiennes was in the great final speech at the end, a small lost figure enclosed in a tiny square prison of light inside the vastness of the old Gainsborough studios. It is poetry which resonates all the more for having seen how Richard’s own insensitivity, foolishness and egotism led to his downfall. It had to come, but it still breaks your heart to see it happen as you understand that he has now learned what he needed to know about himself as a man, rather than a king, but just too late. I can remember my English teacher talking about how people cried in the theatre when Gielgud played that scene. I bet they did. It is a play full of poetry, the only Shakespeare play written entirely in blank verse, which also responds to being given beauty in its setting. The Almeida production filled the end of the Gainsborough studios with a stark beauty made of weathered brick and real trees, and the RSC production with Jeremy Irons was like a beautifully lit gleaming book of hours set on stage. A really great production of this play is a very special thing to see.

The BBC have returned to it again in summer 2012 as part of their hollow crown season with a fine cast and Rupert Goold directing. I was very excited to see it, but also just a bit concerned. This is a play that I have strong feelings about and if they didn’t get it right I was not going to like seeing it let down. Some of the old BBC Shakespeares (not Richard II thankfully) were distinctly dodgy. On the whole I needn’t have worried. There is some fine acting on show and that will always come first for me. Ben Whishaw is every bit as good as his many fans would have hoped as Richard. He looks wonderful and has the right capricious, insular, self obsessed, other worldly quality to play a monarch who is so in thrall to the trappings of the divine role of King that he has lost sight of everything else, including himself. You can see his thoughts flicker across his face and while this is sometimes deeply distasteful it works beautifully at the end of the play when there is nowhere left for him to hide from himself, nobody else for him to define himself by, and he is forced to meet himself face to face. There is some great support from some of our most experienced actors. David Suchet is a strong and believable York- a part that can look foolish if it is played badly- Patrick Stewart gives one of Shakespeare’s finest speeches as good a reading as you could hope for as John Of Gaunt, and it was a complete joy to see an actor of David Bradley’s stature giving real life to the tiny part of the gardener. Casting of such depth is probably the main reason for putting Shakespeare on screen where it will never quite belong.

When it comes to the direction by Rupert Goold I do have some reservations. There are some nice touches, like the way Richard feeds his monkey during the scene at the opening where Mowbray and Bolingboke are being banished, and there are some beautifully shot interior cathedral and tent scenes which work really well, but I’m not sure it was wise to open up the play to include exterior scenes. The famous hollow crown speech is not improved by being spoken by a Richard who has been wading around on a beach looking for all the world like Lawrence of Arabia. The religious iconograpy where Richard rides on a white donkey and is finally shot repeatedly by crossbow like St Sebastian is justified but rather too heavy handed for my taste. The play stands or falls on its poetry and you really shouldn’t let anything else distract from that. A lesser Richard II than Ben Whishaw would have sunk without trace when asked to carry the weight of all that. I am thrilled to have had the chance to see that performance close up.

For all my doubts this film was basically a success for me and I am heartened by it and looking forward to my other loves, Henry IV parts one and two, and Henry V. I have a feeling that I shall like the Henry IV’s even better.