Maureen and I have become connoisseurs of filmed plays of late. Worst is the National Theatre, because of the annoyingly patronising introductions by Emma Freud. Best is the Globe Theatre, which trusts us to know how to be playgoers and simply takes us straight into the performance. Somewhere in between is the Royal Shakespeare Company, with their first venture into the form in the shape of Richard II, or, to give it its proper title, The Tragedy of King Richard the Second. We appreciated the fact that we were given a full cast list at the start, complete with photographs, a simple innovation that the other two companies should certainly copy. Suzy Klein made a far better fist of the introduction than La Freud, and her interview with director Gregory Doran managed both to avoid sycophancy and to be genuinely informative. However, she also introduces the Proms on Radio 3, and just as always seems to happen on radio she crashed the start of the performance. I don’t know why announcers seem to imagine that the thing does not begin until the first sound comes from the stage. I also don’t know why they feel the need to tell us in advance what we can see for ourselves, or what the play will tell us in the first few minutes.
In this production, for instance, we open inside a religious building. A coffin stands centre stage, a black-clad widow has thrown herself partly across it. Slowly, various figures come on stage, make obeisance to the coffin and stand back, their body language betokening some tension in the air. These are men, not armed or armoured here, but in sturdy, dark-coloured garments that make you think they are ready for a fight. A pause, then in sweeps King Richard in a long, light, feminine gown and pays no attention to the coffin. And only now does Klein stop telling us that this is the coffin of Gloucester, one of Richard’s many uncles, and that Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Hereford, son of John of Gaunt (another uncle) is about to accuse Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, of the murder. I’m sorry, but we don’t need to be told this, all of this information becomes apparent in the next few minutes anyway. We would have lost nothing, missed nothing, if Klein had simply been silent from the moment the camera first picked out the dark coffin on the dark stage, with Jane Lapotaire’s long grey hair fanned across it.
Ah, Jane Lapotaire as the Duchess of Gloucester, returning to the stage for the first time since a brain aneurism that nearly killed her. Her face is pale, her eyes pink-rimmed, her voice never quite free of sobs, she is the very picture of grief into which intrudes a slow realisation of the crimes and duplicities that her husband’s death has opened up. Her one scene would stand as a masterclass in acting were it not surrounded by other performances of equal stature.
Michael Pennington, for instance, is reliably wonderful as John of Gaunt, grown old, aware of his approaching death, trying to maintain some order in a disordered world. Gaunt, of course, has one of the great Shakespearian speeches:
This royal throne of kings, this scept’red isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands;
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England
There is always a problem with these great set speeches, because they exist outside the realm of the play. I’ve seen productions of Hamlet, for instance, in which it feels like we’re watching a dramatized reading of a Dictionary of Quotations. Of course, Gaunt’s speech, I think, was always meant to live outside the play. Richard II is quite an early play, dating from sometime in the mid-1590s; the fears of the Armada in 1588, and the miraculous delivery, would still be of very recent memory, and I think this speech is deliberately designed to call that to mind. It is a proclamation that partly extolls the glory of the monarchy (significantly spoken by Elizabeth I’s own ancestor), though it’s not of the play (Gaunt’s own son is shortly to cross that defensive sea with an army of conquest), and above all it is spoken by a man who is dying. How to give that speech must be a nightmare for any actor. Pennington solves it by being quiet, hesitant, wracked by his own mortality, a man trying to give voice to the ideals that have sustained him through life but realising that they really have no place in the world of his death, in large part due to the actions of his own son.
If Pennington gives an object lesson in how to speak verse, David Tennant, as Richard II, demonstrates how, at the same time, to give full weight to the verse while making it feel conversational. When Richard returns from Ireland, he throws himself to the ground for a mad speech:
Yield stinging nettles to mine enemies;
And when they from thy bosom pluck a flower,
Guard it, I pray thee, with a lurking adder,
Whose double tongue may with a mortal touch
Throw death upon thy sovereign’s enemies.
But when he jumps to his feet once more, his sharp ‘Mock not’ to his companions, both acknowledges the madness of the speech and reasserts his dignity all at the same time. Again, later, when forced to abdicate, he calls for a looking glass and says:
No deeper wrinkles yet? Hath sorrow struck
So many blows upon this face of mine
And made no deeper wounds?
This could so easily be a distraction, a diversion, an irrelevance, an expression of ego, a failure to acknowledge reality, but the way Tennant speaks the lines it is none of that. It becomes, rather, a moment of recognition of reality, when Richard starts to see a distance between the person and status of the king and his own body. Remember, Richard came to the throne when he was just 10 years old, he is barely 32 at this moment, being king is all he has ever known. Tennant captures the sadness and wonder of that realisation beautifully.
I first realised how good a Shakespearian actor Tennant was when I saw his Hamlet a few years ago, but if anything, Richard II tops that. He dominates the stage whenever he is on, you cannot stop yourself watching him. But if anyone else in this extraordinarily high-powered cast comes close, it is Oliver Ford Davies as York. Davies has been around for donkey’s years, but I first really took notice of him when he played Polonius to Tennant’s Hamlet. That sad, wise fool is a thankless part, but Davies made sense of it: the ‘Neither a borrower nor a lender be’ speech worked better than I’ve ever known it, indeed better than I thought it could work. There is, I think, something of Polonius in York (another of Richard II’s uncles), a sad old man blown by the winds of fate, trying to maintain some sort of peace, order and common sense, all of which are beyond him. He speaks his lines much like Tennant speaks his, as ordinary, conversational speech, and accompanies it with sharp glances (Davies has a far more mobile face than you might expect) that tell you he suspects he is being cozened but doesn’t quite know how. The scene in which he and his wife (Marty Cruickshank, also wonderful in a too small part) try to outdo each other in their appeals to Henry IV about their son, she trying to win pardon, he righteously trying to have their son executed for treason, is a marvellous piece of tragic comedy.
Indeed, the only performance that didn’t fully satisfy me was Nigel Lindsay as Henry Bolingbroke. We don’t really see Bolingbroke as an individual, only as an opposite to Richard. Such twinning is in the text, of course. When Bolingbroke is outside Flint Castle, preparing to capture Richard, he says: ‘Be he the fire, I’ll be the yielding water.’ Later, as Richard abdicates in Henry’s favour, he reverses the image: ‘Standing before the sun of Bolingbroke, / To melt myself away in water-drops!’ But it is in the performances also. Tennant’s Richard is mercurial, willowy, feminine, dressed in long pale robes and constantly in motion; Lindsay’s Bolingbroke, therefore, is stolid, rather stout, very masculine, dressed in dark martial costumes, and ever still. When Richard moves he is swift and flowing, when Bolingbroke moves he is slow and lumbering. The duel with Mowbray is fought with immense two-handed swords (never meant for such a purpose), these can only be lifted and swung with difficulty, emphasising their inertia. Bolingbroke, therefore, comes across, probably through no fault of Lindsay’s, as rather dull. Only at the end, when Henry wears the gaudy robes of kingship and looks extraordinarily uncomfortable in them, did a sense of character come across to me.
Progressive lines of silver chains hang at the back of the stage, the scene is set by images projected upon the chains so that they shimmer and appear somewhat insubstantial. The front of the stage is bare; a coffin, a single seat, the set is minimal to the point of non-existence. Occasionally, a walkway hangs above the stage, just wide enough to hold Richard’s throne; most of the time this walkway is raised out of sight.
Props are similarly kept to a minimum. The one we see most, which is used most, is the crown. It is a simple gold circlet from which eight fleur de lys arise at the points of the compass. Richard wears it low across the brow, part and parcel of his gaudy attire, but he regularly sweeps it from his head, casts it aside as though eager to be rid of it, then snatches it up again because it is too much a part of him. When required to surrender the crown to Bolingbroke he takes it happily off his head, then waits downstage with it held out, making Bolingbroke come to him to seize it. Everything in Tennant’s voice and posture tells us how relieved he is to be rid of it, but when Bolingbroke does indeed take hold of it, Richard cannot release his grip. He then twists it upside down, and the hollow crown becomes the bucket, one rising, one falling, that symbolises the relationship between the two men. The crown is everywhere throughout the play, a constant reminder of one of the major themes of what we are seeing.
Or at least the most obvious of the themes, that of the relationship between the position of the king and the nature of the person who wears the crown. This is inescapably there within the play, of course. We are constantly being asked to compare King Richard with Richard the man, King Henry with Bolingbroke the man. It is notable, for instance, that in the early part of the play our sympathies are with Bolingbroke: he has been exiled, his lands and properties have been seized to pay for Richard’s war in Ireland, his father has died. Richard, meanwhile, appears capricious, uncaring, ill-advised by a trio of simpering sycophants. But gradually, during the course of the play (the up and down of the two buckets) our sympathies switch to Richard. He is alone, friendless, ill-used. Bolingbroke/Henry, in contrast, becomes himself cruel and haughty, ill-advised by Northumberland who is never satisfied by the cruel revenge he has exacted upon Richard. As he assumes the crown, he finds himself beset by plots and rebellions, so that it immediately becomes as heavy for him as it did for Richard. When, in the end, Richard is murdered, we know it is both what Henry desires and against his wishes, king and person are torn in two every bit as much as Richard had been.
But this is only one of the themes in the play. What this staging seemed to bring out was two things in particular. One was the religious aspect: characters are forever crossing themselves, and the king, of course, is an earthly representative of god. Everything that happens, therefore, is presented as a crisis of conscience. More significantly, it also brought out the importance of family. Richard’s father was Edward the Black Prince, the eldest son of Edward III who was one of the greatest of medieval monarchs. The Black Prince died before he could ascend the throne, his elder son, also Edward, had died even earlier, which is how 10-year-old Richard came to inherit the kingdom. But the Black Prince had a host of younger brothers; John of Gaunt, Edmund of York, Thomas of Gloucester, all play their part in this play. It is very much a family affair. Yet for all that we see brothers and cousins constantly battling each other, what we are most aware of is children needing parents. Richard had no parental guidance when he came to the throne, and even now seems childlike. His capriciousness seems to be as much that of a spoilt child as of a wilful monarch. Bolingbroke is in exile when his father dies, and when he lists his grievances it is this that seems to bulk largest. And late in the play we witness the differences between York and his wife over their son Aumerle. Aumerle had stayed loyal to Richard until the end, unlike York who had switched sides. Now Aumerle has been revealed to be part of a plot to murder Henry, and York wants to condemn him for treason while his wife wants to safe him because he is their son. Family feeling within this extended family of Edward III’s descendants is not exactly nurturing. Significantly, Aumerle turns out to be Richard’s assassin. In this family, everyone turns against everyone else.
Gregory Doran has just become the Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and Richard II is both his first production in that role and the RSC’s first venture into filming plays like this. It has to be considered a success on both counts. One of the things that Doran revealed during his interview with Klein is his intention to stage all 36 of the canonical plays over the next six years (I note that Henry IV Part I, Henry IV Part II, and Two Gentlemen of Verona are all scheduled for the early part of next year). If they are all filmed, and if they are all as good as this, we will certainly be making an effort to see them all.