Monday, October 28, 2013

"Here, cousin": of divine kings destroyed and traitors risen higher than their worth - Richard II @RSC Stratford, matinee performance 26 October 2013

I wrote a less spoilery review from my first visit (on the first night) so I thought I would take the time to give a more revealing commentary here having seen the show a second time, from a physically different angle.

For the first visit, we were in the stalls; for this, as we were taking the sibling part of the Roberts' family (Mark, Sarah, Grace and James), we were on the Upper Circle, but this turned out to be no bad thing for getting a different perspective on things on many levels.

So, in terms of this production, if you are planning to see it - whether onstage, or on screen, or on the planned later DVD release - and if you don't want to know the quirks of this version.....





It is a fine ensemble production, and there are plenty of pleasures in every performance from Elliot Barnes-Worrell as the groom through to Edmund Wiseman as Harry Percy (wonder what will become of THAT character... rhetorical question folks).  Everyone in between, from the most experienced to the young upcomers, give everything and make not only every line count - it is exceptionally well-spoken and clear, perhaps some of the clearest deliveries I've heard for a long while - but every look and gesture counts as well.

On which note, how I love the long piercing glare that Richard throws at Mowbray, a kind of 'don't even think about it' look, when Mowbray is directly asked by Bolingbroke "Confess thy treasons ere thou fly this realm"... ouch. There is such an extended pause when Mowbray considers his options before replying "No", that one wonders if Richard may lose his pacing cool stance in exhalation of relief at Mowbray keeping his silence. But the King barely flutters an eyelash.  At this stage, he still feels himself to be divinely approved, comfortable in his effete luxury, (over)confident in his actions.

As a whole, the production seems no less tight than it did on the first night, though they have tweaked a couple of things. They've probably shortened a few hems (no trips or snags this time around), and no-one got smacked by a snapping stick (they've moved the action with the gardeners in Act 3 scene 4 - which opens the post-interval acts - to face the centre of the stage rather than the hapless audience). Some very minor changes in staging have been made - a couple of sequences seem to be located further up the thrust stage, but nothing that especially makes a returning visitor gasp or bemoan a change in emphasis.  The RSC at its best knows how to get it right from the start.

The 'halves' of the show remain intact, with the interval coming after a potentially numbing 1 hour 40 mins (before a brisk second 'half' of around an hour).  There are a lot of events and persons to get your head around if coming raw to this play, and I wish I had better prepared the family for their trip.  Never mind: the second half has more humour and certainly it makes sense to knock Richard down before the interval and then chronicle his further decline and end after the break.  I'm sure there are multiple ways of staging this, but it is difficult to judge where the timing of the break could come - before Act 3 kicks off at all?  That would make for a strangely flat culmination of the first section, with Salisbury and the Welsh captain at odds for Richard's failure to show his presence - and therefore to confirm he still lives - to the warring soldiers amidst the ailing Irish battles Richard was so keen to source funds to fight.  Scheduling the interval after Act 3 scene 2 would break the transition of power as Richard realises how lost he is and would bring the audience back in the midst of that demise, so I can absolutely see the logic of breaking ahead of the gardener's scene. The unevenness is within the play itself it seems.

Back to the staging (and high credits to designer Stephen Brimson Lewis and lighting director Tim Mitchell):

Being down below, it is harder to appreciate some of the lighting and projections onto the stage floor; from above these are glorious - branches, streaks of dark fragmented bark, shadows and shapes.  For the final prison scene, where Richard is chained in a lonely dungeon, the beautiful use of mirrors allows those in the stalls to appreciate the below stage scene.  When located high above the action, it is possible to see and appreciate both the mirroring and the actors.

From stalls level, you see the great height of the staging - the magnificent projections of cathedral spaces; but from above they look just as spectacular.  It is also good to have a different viewpoint on the bridge on which the throne sits - it drops into place, sometimes to stage level, but more often at the Circle level and as Richard is brought low by the traitors who surround him, the fragility of this balcony becomes apparent: he unsurprisingly returns at the end, angelic white robes, to cast a gloomy eye down on Bolingbroke's attempts to refute that he had in any way wanted Richard's death

It is also a great treat to be on the same level as the incredible musicians and singers: the excellent trio of sopranos singing Paul Englishby's music are especially wonderful to see in closer proximity.  I'm looking forward to listening to the CD: it all sounded beautiful.

Back to the play itself.

There is much grief in this play, and not least because of the enormously popular Ben Whishaw/Rupert Goold adaptation for The Hollow Crown series of Shakespeare adaptations for television, which attacked the tearducts with customary heartfelt passion from both parties.  This is more of a heartbreaking sting than full-blown tears; the inevitability of downfall tempers the Christ-like allusions (which are no less absent here, just differently conveyed).  This is indeed a sad story of the death of a king.

The grief is there from the start, with the luminous Jane Lapotaire's silky grey hair cascaded down her black widow's garb for the demise of Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester.

Her fretful, stumbling desperation to address the death of her husband pulls at our sensibilities of how grief should be expressed.  It is contained and uncontained, urging action and yet paralysed to achieve.  There is the grief of Gaunt, his son banished on a half-whim by Richard who is even at this stage a compromised figure, and whose illness in response is brushed off as lightly as Richard takes his flatterers seriously (til he realises just how they pandered to his ego and power).  There is a clear dismissiveness in Richard's "So much for that" after Gaunt's death is announced and perfunctory regret is expressed.

It has to be said that Pennington as Gaunt is toweringly good, bring life (and death) to the potentially-all-too-familiar "This sceptr'd isle" speech.  That he makes it fresh is wonderful to watch and hear: fiery passion and fading breath at its best.

It is after Gaunt's death that the fatal compromise that York undertakes to not go against the challenge of Bolingbroke and his supporters, to ultimately not just accept but facilitate it, come to the fore.  Oliver Ford Davies does weary so well, and he is well cast here as the flawed York who given governance of England in Richard's absence can do little to protect it, and makes pragmatism a resignedly sad decision to survive.

Several have commented on how this production still manages to "find the funny"; sometimes this maybe goes beyond expectations of more traditional viewers for the play, but actually this largely works.  It is a particular despairing first 'half' as Richard falls from careless power, cronies and fey recklessness to his eventual (second half) handing of the crown to Bolingbroke, so bringing in a level of farce to proceedings adds some much needed levity.

There is certainly a tragi-comedic undertone in the lengthy pause after "For heaven's sake let us sit upon the ground..." before the continuation of "and tell sad stories of the death of kings".  The break in the pattern allows us to see Richard in a transitory position - he remains King, despite the wreckage of his power falling to Bolingbroke's populist might, and as such can petulantly demand the grown men around him seat themselves upon the ground like children in a ring for games... but when the game is being pulled away from him and smile stings. There are little details like the step back and forth of the Queen and her ladies-in-waiting as she playfully tries to get them guessing what move she will make that they must follow.

In the second 'half', the humour is more broad, though again varies between intonation, context, pacing, and stage direction.  Several have commented on the "here, cousin" as Richard calls Bolingbroke to collect the crown - like the calling of a pet dog to fetch a treat.  

The tone is biting, and yet in it there is Richard's last vestige of power as he is able to undercut Bolingbroke's thievery of this potent and well-like symbol.  Adding an edge of ludicrousness to the multiple 'throwing of the gages' (a kind of "I challenge you Sir" - "NO, I challenge YOU sir!") in Act 4 scene 1, somehow seems right, not least because it suggests that Bolingbroke's power might easily crumple before it is fully won between these bickering lords.  Similarly, there is excellent use of Oliver Ford Davies's comic timing, especially alongside Marty Cruickshank as York's wife.  Even from the start of that scene (Act 5 scene 2) there is an inevitable playfulness in the delivery of the lines so apt to a Tennant-adoring audience as this is (and as it was for Hamlet too, which OFD also shared):

"As in a theatre, the eyes of men,
After a well-graced actor leaves the stage,
Are idly bent on him that enters next,
Thinking his prattle to be tedious...."

And yet, this is such an ensemble piece that the audiences are entranced even without the star-turn on stage (though he is on stage a lot).  When the Yorks discover their son Aumerle's part in a plot against Bolingbroke as king, we know each character is feeling for their part in Richard's downfall (and York especially has much to feel responsible about). Each pleading with Bolingbroke is made with heartfelt anguish but deep comic bones, and it was a wonderful final flash of exhalation for the audience before the inevitable final downfall of the former King.

And of that fall...? Aumerle is the key, and we've been set up for this throughout the play.  When others act as flatterers - Baggot, Bushy and Green are just the most visible of these - Aumerle quietly adores and fears in equal measure what it means to be in the presence of his King, his Richard.

Oliver Rix brings Aumerle to fruition elegantly, sparely.  It's isn't an especially large role, but you feel his sharing of the pain that Richard has to swallow as this King realises that all the divine appointment in the world cannot stop rebellion (and Richard has more than a little of himself to blame for how he got to the crown and that 'divine appointment' in the first place).  The balcony scene when Richard effectively surrenders to Bolingbroke's request - you can see how Aumerle flinches at having to deliver the lines - is a real heartbreaker.

So it is all the more heartbreaking by the end when Richard is killed and in being killed he pulls back the hood of the one who wields the dagger: to survive, to prove worth after being implicated in a plot to kill Bolingbroke the usurper King, Aumerle takes on the worst task in the world.  The omission of the tentative Act 5 scene 4 now makes sense, and is all the more painful for it. To quote Wilde:

"Yet each man kills the thing he loves,
By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!"

Presented with the body of his erstwhile enemy, the deposed King, Bolingbroke understandably flinches, and there's an even clearer sense of his 'supporters' backing off despite the refuting that the death was anything he wanted.  As Richard had predicted earlier, the duplicitous Northumberland (an excellent Sean Chapman) - the vilest of those who had thrown in with Bolingbroke - will "knowst the way to plant unrightful kings [and] wilt know again".  When he backs off, you expect that there will be trouble ahead for Bolingbroke's peace of mind.

And so a final visiting angel comes to glower over this departure: a throne was squandered and yet also stolen.  No one comes out good, those who live nor those who die (one cannot envisage that Aumerle's soul will be rested or reunited after his actions).  Bleak?  Yes.  But utterly magnificent.  Everyone - even if I have missed off a few names - contributes everything they have to this production.  It is a triumph.

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