Richard II, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, 19 October 2013
A coffin rested on a stand centre stage before a backdrop of a Gothic arched interior, which was projected onto six overlapping beaded curtains, three each side of the upstage area.
Ten minutes before the start the Duchess of Gloucester (Jane Lapotaire) was escorted to the coffin, her widow’s weeds and faltering progress indicating her extremity of grief. She knelt on a stool and draped herself over one end and rested there.
Up in the gallery three women sang as the funeral crowd gathered. Gaunt (Michael Pennington) and York (Oliver Ford Davies) comforted the Duchess of Gloucester before drawing aside.
Richard swept in to adjudicate the dispute between Bolingbroke (Nigel Lindsay) and Mowbray (Antony Byrne) (1.1).
David Tennant’s Richard was a striking visual presence in his long hair and flowing gown, yet the most salient aspect of his character, present from the start and maintained throughout, was his total unlikeability.
He spoke with an affected accent, exuded disdain for those around him far stronger than regal distance, and had a habit of either looking down his nose at people or talking while facing away from them.
Despite the hair and feminine gowns, his cold aggression and strutting created an ever-present atmosphere of menace.
The strange accent was patently not the result of David Tennant’s inability to speak convincing RP; it was nevertheless deliberately contrived to enhance the impression that the king’s regal airs were a front.
Tennant’s Richard exemplified the ideas that are expounded during his downfall: that his self-image is as brittle as a mirror and that in being king he had merely been allowed to play “a little scene, to monarchize”. Right from the start, this Richard was playing a part: an inauthentic character whose fakery was bolstered by his grim determination to preserve his authority.
Richard talked to Gaunt and summoned Bolingbroke and Mowbray. They knelt before him with their backs to the audience. Richard offered a limp hand when saying “Yet one but flatters us”, before reading from a paper handed to him about “the cause you come”.
The guests that had gathered for the wake became increasingly disturbed by the vehemence of the dispute, particularly when Bolingbroke accused Mowbray of being behind Gloucester’s death. At this point many of them, including York and his Duchess, left with huffs of disgust.
At 1.1.107 Richard went to confer with Bushy (Sam Marks), Bagot (Jake Mann) and Green (Marcus Griffiths), his favourites, before returning to remark sarcastically “How high a pitch his resolution soars”.
Something about Mowbray’s denial of his involvement in Gloucester’s death was unconvincing. Saying that he had “neglected my sworn duty in that case” was a vague, evasive statement.
Richard wanted them to make peace: “This we prescribe, though no physician”. He lingered over the four syllables of “physician” as if conscious of its metre. This could have been seen as his awareness of his own theatricality in ‘monarchizing’. When he said “Our doctors say this is no time to bleed” he claque of favourites applauded sycophantically.
Gaunt and Richard tried to get the adversaries to throw down the gages they had both picked up.
Mowbray and Bolingbroke ignored these entreaties. Their enmity reached a high point as they growled at each other nose to nose, causing Richard to pound his warder onto Gloucester’s coffin and exclaim that he was “not born to sue but to command”. This outburst and accompanying loud bang demonstrated that below Richard’s outward serenity there flowed a dark undercurrent of intemperate violence.
Richard ordered them to settle their dispute through trial by combat at Coventry.
The others exited to leave Gaunt alone with the Duchess of Gloucester still leaning over her husband’s coffin (1.2). Jane Lapotaire was excellent as she rose to castigate Gaunt for “suff’ring thus thy brother to be slaughtered”. Her tongue curdled the air as she pronounced the phrases “fell Mowbray” and “butcher Mowbray”.
Then, imagining Mowbray’s defeat at Bolingbroke’s hands, she viciously relished the prospect of this revenge being visited on the “caitiff recreant”.
Her vacillations and faltering memory became in Lapotaire’s performance the painful witnesses of the Duchess’s extreme emotional distress that exacerbated her physical frailty. Her condition in this scene made the subsequent news of her death entirely credible. Her repeated “Desolate, desolate” was particularly powerful.
And with a quaint device a gantry was flown in bearing the throne (1.3). Richard and his party entered the gantry from the sides once it was in position above the stage. He sat on the throne with his queen to his right and his favourites to his left. The projection became brighter to indicate the outdoor location.
Bolingbroke and Mowbray were summoned to fight. They appeared in full armour and had holy water sprinkled on them. Bolingbroke was shorter, squatter and rougher than both Richard and Mowbray. His short hair formed a distinct contrast to Richard’s long plait.
Bolingbroke asked to kiss Richard’s hand. Bagot whispered in Richard’s ear after which, presumably on his favourite’s advice, the king agreed to descend, at which point all the favourites applauded him.
Richard descended the stairway and kissed Bolingbroke on the cheek. Despite Richard’s physical proximity to Bolingbroke, he still radiated emotional coldness.
Bolingbroke addressed “I take my leave of you” to Richard who, now at the end of their exchange, offered his hand for Bolingbroke to kiss and then returned to the gantry, pointedly ignoring Mowbray as he passed him.
Mowbray’s address to Richard was spoken downstage facing the audience. Its cold reception from those onstage and Richard’s cool response indicated the extent to which Mowbray was out of favour.
The combatants were given long swords and began to fight. After some brief skirmishes, Richard dropped his warder casually without drawing attention to himself. As king, he expected his every gesture to be noticed anyway. However, Bolingbroke and Mowbray did not notice and so the Lord Marshall (Simon Thorp) had to intervene to separate them.
Richard descended again and went upstage to confer with his favourites. He called in Gaunt, who would later reference this conference. The Lord Marshall twice ordered the trumpets to sound a flourish in order to fill out the time. But the second time he gestured at them to strike up, Richard immediately returned, forcing the Lord Marshall to signal them to stop and thereby injecting a note of comedy into the proceedings.
Richard exiled Bolingbroke but permanently banished Mowbray, who did not accept this punishment with good grace.
Mowbray objected to his banishment, but Richard simply turned away from him, leaving the duke to address his futile complaint to Richard’s back. In frustration at this snub, at 1.3.171 Mowbray exclaimed “What! Is thy sentence then but speechless death” and grabbed Richard’s hand as he passed.
Richard quickly retracted his hand and The Lord Marshall drew his sword on Mowbray in response to this apparent treason. Richard did not respond to the affront, but merely extended his hand out of the way as if to say ‘I’ve noticed this insult, so watch it; but I’m not that bothered as my people will deal with you’. An overt reaction would have been beneath him, but his casual response to the buffeting carried a threat of heavy retribution.
Richard took the Lord Marshall’s drawn sword and made the combatants swear not to plot against him. There was a feverishness to this demand, resulting from Richard’s cognisance of Mowbray’s barely concealed animosity towards him.
Bolingbroke offered Mowbray a chance to admit his involvement in Gloucester’s death. Mowbray paused at length before refusing to do so.
Seeing Gaunt’s tears at his son’s sentence, Richard deducted four years from Bolingbroke’s exile, producing yet more sycophantic applause from his favourites. But Bolingbroke’s stern reaction to this seemed more a critique of royal prerogative than gratitude for the reprieve.
Gaunt tried to cheer him up, but Bolingbroke could only look at the ground. Bolingbroke bid farewell by touching England’s “sweet soil”. It was possible that the relative restraint of this gesture was meant to stick in our minds, later to be contrasted with the elaborate effusion of Richard’s greeting to the same soil on his return from Ireland.
Richard was found changing clothes while looking in a mirror (1.4). This early instance of Richard with a mirror was a nod and a wink to those familiar with the play, pointing towards the cracked mirror in the deposition scene.
As Aumerle (Oliver Rix) approached, Richard’s favourites turned and whispered to the king conspiratorially. Richard broke off from the huddle, with his first words “We did observe” forming a reply to them. He asked Aumerle slyly about what had happened when he had accompanied Bolingbroke on his departure. His brief, terse questions indicated his suspicion, while his preening in the mirror spoke of his vanity.
Tennant did a good job of conveying the sense of the potentially opaque phrase “whether our kinsman come to see his friends”, making it plain that Richard saw this possible visitation as a threat.
Richard mocked Bolingbroke, but became angry when remarking “As were our England in reversion his” revealing Richard’s fears of being usurped.
He decided to go to Ireland just before news came of Gaunt’s illness. He held up his own garment to comment that dead Gaunt’s riches would “make coats to deck our soldiers”.
Gaunt was visibly haggard and feverish when he was helped onstage by York (2.1). A chair was provided for him, but initially Gaunt stood as the consistently grumpy York explained how Richard would not heed good advice as his ear was “stopped with other, flatt’ring sounds”.
Gaunt launched into the iconic “royal throne of kings” speech while York stood close by and nodded vigorously in agreement with the various elements of his long complaint.
The royal party entered with a flourish on the stage left walkway. Richard’s initial cold greeting to Gaunt developed into pity and witty sparring between them, until Gaunt launched into his second long speech attacking Richard directly. He sat to save his strength before telling Richard “I see thee ill” and pointing at the king’s favourites to single them out as “those physicians that first wounded thee”.
Richard interrupted him, angrily dragged Gaunt from his chair and grabbed him forcefully round the neck, thereby amplifying his threat to remove Gaunt’s head “from thy unreverent shoulders”. The king’s anger turned to physical aggression, possibly with a conscious determination to shorten the life of this “Lunatic lean-witted fool”.
Gaunt weakened noticeably at the end of his final rant at Richard and was taken way upstage right. Richard pursued him, urging “And let them die that age and sullens have”, words that seemed to express the intention behind his rough treatment of the sick man.
York tried to assuage the angry king, but Richard only delighted in picking him up on his comparison between Gaunt and Hereford, sarcastically implying that Gaunt was similarly disliked.
Northumberland (Sean Chapman) returned to announce that Gaunt had died. This was all the more shocking because Gaunt was visibly younger than York, which made his passing appear very untimely and far from the result of natural causes.
York knelt in prayer and rued the death of his brother. Richard approached and put a comforting hand on his back. The apparent respect behind his comforting references to how “The ripest fruit first falls” and “our pilgrimage” was undercut when Richard brusquely clapped him on the back and turned away with a curt “So much for that”. Tennant’s emotionally cold interpretation of Richard was fully warranted by the character’s behaviour at this point.
Richard dispatched his favourites to seize Gaunt’s property, tersely dismissing York’s objections to the disinheritance of Bolingbroke.
Bushy, Bagot and Green returned with silverware and other goods as the expropriation went ahead.
As the royal party began to leave, Richard enjoined his sour-faced queen (Emma Hamilton) to “Be merry”. This highlighted her depressed mood, of which she spoke herself in the next scene.
Northumberland and his associates were left behind to criticise the injustice of Richard’s rule, after which Northumberland revealed that Bolingbroke had returned from exile and had landed at Ravenspurgh.
The back wall projection showed a white hart as the queen entered with Bushy and Bagot (2.2). The queen’s premonitions captured well the sense of impending disaster. Bushy and Bagot had brought with them a set of perspective pictures and a cylindrical mirror viewer, all of which had probably recently been looted from Gaunt’s house.
After trying to conceal the objects behind their backs, they found an immediate use for them. They showed her a series of images reflected in the viewer, hastily skipping over one, possibly because of its racy content, as they explained that her grief was similar to an optical illusion.
Green arrived with news of Bolingbroke’s landing, which confirmed the queen in her dark forebodings.
York was still ill-tempered, complaining that “nothing lives but crosses, cares and grief”. He became the dismal embodiment of the grief of which the queen had spoken.
The death of the Duchess of Gloucester brought more gloom with York ruminating “How shall we do for money for these wars?” As he continued with his preparations for Richard’s Irish war, he turned to Bushy, Bagot and Green and asked “Gentlemen, will you go muster men?” They shrugged their shoulders and looked clueless in response, producing more despondency in York as he walked off in his habitual grump. His grumble that “everything is left at six and seven” as he disappeared off the walkway, tinged his departure with comedy.
The favourites were left alone. Realising that the tide of events was turning against them, Green and Bushy decided to seek refuge in Bristol while Bagot left for Ireland.
Brambles were projected at the back as Bolingbroke, now returned to England, and Northumberland made their way along the road (2.3). Percy (Edmund Wiseman) soon caught up with them and was introduced to Bolingbroke.
At this stage, Bolingbroke looked like a reasonable successor to Richard. He had personal warmth and his greetings and conversation seemed sincere. This contrasted with the deliberately chilly characterisation Tennant gave to the incumbent monarch. But this did not prevent Bolingbroke being very abrupt with Berkeley when he omitted to address him as “Lancaster”.
Despite his contrite kneeling posture, Bolingbroke incurred the full force of York’s wrath for returning from exile. The fury was all the more effective for emanating from one of the frailest characters in the production.
But York could not maintain that level of animosity for long. After his initial outburst, York wilted and faded as he realised that he could not resist Bolingbroke’s onward march. He said “Unless you please…” and after a considerable pause continued “… to enter in the castle…” wafting his hand at waist height as if positively encouraging them to accompany him.
He appeared tempted by the opportunity to join Bolingbroke in Bristol to see Bushy and Bagot dealt with. But he reverted to his customary despondency when saying that “Things past redress are now with me past care”.
The moon was projected on to the back wall to provide a backdrop for the brief scene in which the Welsh Captain (Joshua Richards) informed Salisbury (Simon Thorp again) that his forces were departing, referencing how “the pale-faced moon looks bloody on the earth” as one of many portents that the king was dead (2.4).
Bushy and Green were dragged out of a large upstage trap (3.1). Bolingbroke castigated them for living off his rightful inheritance while he had enjoyed nothing but “the bitter bread of banishment”. Bushy and Green were led away to execution.
Their severed heads were quickly delivered back to Bolingbroke, who brandished them joyously, one in each hand, as he announced “A while to work, and after holiday”. The equation of revenge murder with holidaying provided a stark reminder of Bolingbroke’s callousness.
Richard took off his shoes to run barefoot on the ground when he returned from Ireland (3.2). The seaside location was indicated by a brief crash of waves and squawk of seagulls.
In a grand, self-dramatising gesture, he lay on the ground to caress and talk with the “Dear earth” like a long-lost friend, calling on the soil to bring forth obstacles to Bolingbroke’s advance. Once this conversation was finished, his “mock not” indicated his sudden awareness that the others were taking note of his eccentricity.
He was told how Bolingbroke had taken advantage of his absence to return from exile. Richard compared himself to the rising sun and assured Carlisle and Aumerle that he had many a “glorious angel” fighting on his side. The scariest aspect of this speech was that he actually seemed to believe what he was saying. The staging of a key subsequent scene would refer back to this description.
Salisbury announced that the Welsh forces had departed. Richard suddenly realised that he was 20,000 men down.
He panicked and clutched at Aumerle, who clutched him reassuringly back, enabling Richard to compose himself sufficiently to announce “Am I not king?”
His revival was short-lived. Scroop (Keith Osborn) brought news of a general revolt, at which point Richard started to spit in anger at the Judases that had betrayed him.
But when he learnt that Bushy and Bagot had been executed, he fell on all fours in shock. Still reeling from hearing of their deaths, he crawled across to the centre of the stage to speak “of graves, of worms and epitaphs”.
Richard crouched and saying “let us sit upon the ground” ordered his followers to do likewise. Once they had complied and sat observing him at a distance, he began to speak like a disturbed child about the “sad stories of the death of kings”.
A key point came when he referred to how Death allowed kings “a little scene, to monarchize”. He stretched out his arms to his companions needily expressing how he might “want friends”.
He rolled the crown away from him, but it was gathered and placed back on his head by the Bishop (Jim Hooper) who, together with Aumerle, helped Richard to his feet. Their support made him snap out of his mood with a grateful “Thou chid’st me well”.
He grabbed Aumerle’s sword and wielded it promising to “change blows” with Bolingbroke. But his confidence did not last long. He exploded at Aumerle, slapping his friend’s sides, when news came of York’s defection to Bolingbroke. He exited despondently on a journey to Flint Castle or as he figuratively expressed it “from Richard’s night to Bolingbroke’s fair day”.
Bolingbroke and his followers gathered outside Flint Castle (3.3). He sent Northumberland to talk to Richard.
A spectacular sight interrupted Bolingbroke’s preparations to confront the king.
The gantry descended partway carrying the resplendent figure of Richard in his regal robe, with crown, sceptre and orb in his hands, accompanied by Aumerle who was turned to face him. The king glowed like the bright sun of his rhetorical imaginings in 3.2. In the stage right gallery were some of his followers, hands held together in prayer, facing towards him in adoration, while in the opposite gallery the choir sang as if in his praise.
Richard imperiously demanded to know why Bolingbroke had returned, and threatened nigh-on divine retribution against him.
The staging of this moment showed us Richard as he imagined himself. But Bolingbroke and York also commented on this grand vision. The staging thus converted both Richard’s imagined version of himself, as well as Bolingbroke and York’s interpretation of his presence, into a majestic stage reality. The fact that the staging had given us a fanciful vision of Richard’s self image spoke of his detachment and self-absorption.
Northumberland, now lit, faced the audience as he addressed Richard who was above and behind him on the gantry. Despite Richard’s powerful entry, he conceded to Northumberland’s request to talk with Bolingbroke. His reply was in fact spoken by Aumerle who repeated what Richard silently mouthed in his ear.
After Northumberland had left, Richard took off his glittering royal outer garment in a moment that marked the restoration of reality after his almost supernatural entrance, and turned to Aumerle. Richard asked him if he had made a mistake and should call back Northumberland to send Bolingbroke defiance.
Aumerle noticed and remarked on Northumberland’s return, at which point Richard asked him whether he should resign. For all the solemnity of his thought, he was still very skittish and playful in his delivery of “A little, little grave, an obscure grave”, with the second phrase rushing out and overriding the conclusion of the first.
This terrible prospect caused Aumerle to weep silently, hiding his face from Richard lest he see his shameful tears.
At 3.3.171 he chided Aumerle “you mock at me” (Folio version, not “laugh”). He then kissed Aumerle on the lips and went to put the crown on his head, an offer Aumerle shunned. This gesture, obviously not indicated in any stage direction, established Aumerle as Richard’s main favourite, side-lining the others and preparing the way for the betrayal in the production’s rewritten ending. It was important to position Aumerle as the principal favourite so that his betrayal had bite.
Richard turned to Northumberland and enquired what Bolingbroke wanted. The king was bitterly sarcastic about the request to descend into the base court. This mood continued when he actually met Bolingbroke. As the usurper and his followers knelt before Richard, the king pointed at the crown on his head mocking Bolingbroke for having an ambition aimed “Thus high at least”.
It was decided that Richard should depart for London, at which point the interval came. As the stage emptied, Aumerle cuffed York, highlighting the tension between them.
The second half began with the Queen accompanied by her two ladies in the garden (3.4). They responded to her questions about how they might occupy themselves as if humouring her. This subtly suggested the Queen’s fragile state of mind, which her ladies were taking great care not to aggravate.
They all hid from the Gardener (Joshua Richards again) and his Man (Elliot Barnes-Worrell) behind the poles that supported the bead curtain screens. The Gardener gave a cane to his young assistant to use as “supportance to the bending twigs”. Both had rustic accents.
After they had talked of Richard’s impending deposition, the Queen rushed forward. Recognising her, they knelt. Having ascertained the facts, the Queen decided to set off for London.
The audience tittered at Gage-o-geddon ™ (4.1). Bolingbroke encouraged Bagot to speak freely, so he accused Aumerle of being behind the death of Gloucester. Recrimination and accusations of lying flew about, as did the gages, the number of which risked tipping the scene into comedy.
There was something funny about the overly dramatic way that the gauntlets were thrown to the ground. The fact that Aumerle ran out of gloves and had to borrow one with which to challenge the reported testimony of the banished Mowbray did not help matters.
However, mourning over the death of Mowbray in exile helped to restore an air of seriousness.
York informed them that Richard was prepared to resign. He was accompanied by a servant bearing the crown and warder on a cushion. The throne was already in position behind them, which Bolingbroke was invited to ascend and which he indicated he would occupy.
The Bishop of Carlisle castigated Bolingbroke’s ambition and was promptly arrested.
Henry sat on the throne with the attendant bearing the crown and sceptre on his immediate left. Richard entered in a long white robe, his long plait undone. Being confronted with Henry’s semi-regal presence prompted Richard to ask “why am I sent for to a king…?”
He was very David Tennant when remarking about the courtiers around him saying “Were they not mine?” with a quizzical high pitch to his voice.
He stood downstage and faced the audience to intone “God Save the King!”, surprised that no one else joined in.
Richard asked for the crown, which was brought to him on the cushion. He took the crown and faced the audience, then held the crown with his outstretched right hand before bidding Bolingbroke take it from him. His second “Here, cousin” was spoken tauntingly as if he was saying “Here, kitty” to a cat.
This was a brilliant tactical move. Bolingbroke, ensconced comfortably on the throne was now obliged to rise from it and effectively beg for this ultimate symbol of royal authority, while simultaneously quitting his secure tenure on the relatively minor regal symbol of the throne. To get what he really wanted he was forced to make a demeaning, unregal display of his desire.
Doubt and hesitation played across his face. But then Bolingbroke advanced, stretched out his hand to grasp the crown on the other side. After a brief moment in which Richard described how they both held it either side, he deftly inverted it to begin his analogy about buckets in a well, the upside down crown serving as the mouth of the well.
Richard was determined to remain symbolically in power for as long as possible. In effect, all he had at this point were the symbolic trappings of authority, as actual power had long ago transferred to Bolingbroke. But as Bolingbroke had first taken hold of this symbol of royal power, Richard had symbolically reasserted his control over it by changing its position and giving it a new analogical meaning.
Games like this were all that Richard had left. Fate now only allowed him to play “a little scene, to monarchize” as he had indicated earlier.
This led into the debate about which of them had the most cares. Bolingbroke brought this game to an end with a simple question: “Are you contented to resign the crown?”
Richard relaxed his grip letting the crown move towards Bolingbroke as he said “Ay”, but then snatched it away towards him saying “no”, paused to repeat “No”, before conceding defeat by saying “ay” and letting the crown dangle limply in his outstretched hand.
Richard drew close and stared at him intently, holding the crown close but firmly within his own grasp, demanding that Bolingbroke and all those present, “mark me how I will undo myself”.
He placed the crown on his head, sat on the throne with the sceptre in his hand and went through his long, at times incantatory, list of renouncements. This was his last regal act. Soon reluctant was Richard to let go of his kingship that he last act as monarch was effectively to devise his own elaborate resignation ceremony and to perform it with all due officiousness.
Rising from the throne he approached Bolingbroke, put the sceptre in his hand, and saying “God save King Henry” placed the crown on Bolingbroke’s head before bending to kiss his feet.
Surprised at this rhetorical ceremony of Richard’s own devising and at Richard’s fawning obeisance, Bolingbroke took a few embarrassed steps back as if retreating from the attentions of a deranged but harmless individual.
Richard then asked “What more remains?” at which Northumberland showed him the list of crimes to which he had to confess. Richard testily pointed out that Northumberland’s crimes included the “deposing of a king”, but Northumberland irritatedly restated the demand.
Richard denounced Northumberland as “thou haught insulting man” and also spat out his desire to be “a mockery king of snow”. The stark contrast in the portrayal of Richard and Bolingbroke showed how Richard was living in a fantasy world of principle and symbol.
Richard asked for a mirror. But Northumberland’s repeated insistence that Richard read the paper became so heated that the situation seemed on the verge of erupting into violence, prompting Bolingbroke to caution Northumberland “Urge it no more”.
When the small circular hand mirror arrived, Richard looked into it and pulled on his face, examining its lines. He dropped the mirror to demonstrate the fragility of the image it reflected “As brittle as the glory is the face”, just as casually as he had earlier dropped his warder. The small hand mirror visibly cracked but did not shatter loudly. Richard crouched and leant over it, at which point he resembled Narcissus gazing at his reflection in the water.
Bolingbroke comforted Richard by saying that “the shadow of your sorrow hath destroyed the shadow of your face”. This remark produced sycophantic laughter from Bolingbroke’s followers. But they had only registered that their master had scored a point in an argument and had not fully appreciated the imagery. Their unthinking laughter highlighted how Bolingbroke and Richard, despite their enmity, shared a poetic temperament that set them apart from the others.
Richard really loved Bolingbroke’s reference to him as “fair cousin”, and remarked what a grand change it was to have a king as a flatterer.
Richard was conveyed away and Bolingbroke’s coronation was arranged. In a final parting gesture, Bolingbroke deliberately stamped his heel into the broken mirror as he walked over it.
The anti-Bolingbroke conspirators were left behind to confer over their plot.
The Queen and her ladies made their way through the London streets as random citizens ran amok making gibbering noises (5.1). Richard was brought in handcuffed and collapsed at her feet. He was pelted by the populace with one measly bit of mud.
The couple crouched on the ground as Richard urged her to flee to France. A crowd of Londoners carrying torches gathered to watch them. They buffeted their way forward but were restrained by the queen’s ladies and the guards.
At 5.1.34 “Which art a lion and the king of beasts” was met by a “rawww” from the crowd, which prompted Richard to turn on them directing “A king of beasts, indeed!” at them.
Northumberland appeared in the middle gallery. The crowd laughed when they heard that Richard was to be taken to Pomfret. He said to the Queen “With all swift speed you must away to France” and the crowd mockingly cheered her imminent departure.
Richard was bitterly sarcastic to Northumberland, saying that Bolingbroke would come to mistrust him.
The crowd jeered when the couple kissed, and laughed when the queen suggested “Banish us both” as a compromise.
The agony Richard felt when separated from the queen looked genuine. She was only person to whom Richard was persistently affectionate. The genuine nature of his love for Isabel perhaps helped to blunt the edge of the unlikeable characterisation of Richard so carefully established over the rest of the performance. Richard and Isabel kissed and parted.
As the London crowd dispersed, they revealed behind them the solitary figure of York sitting on a bench (5.2).
He was joined by the vivacious Duchess of York (Marty Cruickshank), who told her husband the story of Bolingbroke’s progress through London. The audience laughed at the theatre in-joke about the “well-graced actor” being followed by one whose “prattle” was tedious.
Aumerle appeared, quickly stuffing his plot bond into his top before making indifferent replies to his parents’ questions.
Inquisitive York snatched the paper from him and was angered by its contents, calling for his horse to be saddled and for his boots. The Duchess was concerned for her son’s fate and York’s repeated misogynist put-downs were stressed as part of the scene’s fun.
The Duchess realised that Aumerle’s life was at stake, so she swiped her husband’s boots and threw them offstage to delay his departure. Once York had set off to warn Bolingbroke, she sent Aumerle after him and prepared to depart herself.
The following court scene began with a joking reference to the unseen Prince Hal and his London high jinks, which made a nice in-joke for the fans of the tetralogy (5.3). Aumerle ascended the steps from the large trap to speak with King Henry. They were left alone to ensure their privacy and Aumerle locked the door at the bottom of the trap. York shouted to be admitted from down below and was eventually let in brandishing the incriminating paper. He was very out of breath from the exertion of the ride.
King Henry said that York’s goodness excused his son’s fault, but York went into a loud grump at Henry’s leniency. The Duchess tried to enter the room, prompting King Henry’s “Our scene is altered from a serious thing”. York exclaimed a loud “oh” when he finally recognised his wife’s voice. She was finally let in, and used her riding crop to beat her husband as she contradicted him.
The comedy of the bickering and competitive kneeling was funny, particularly when the Duchess spread her arms wide claiming “Our prayers do outpray his” to which poor York responded by trying to throwing his hands even wider.
The sequence culminated in the Duchess pleading to hear the king’s pardon before she would rise from her knees.
The effect of York’s French reference, with “pardon” meaning “sorry but no”, was lost in the phrase’s delivery, but the lurch into French was nonetheless vaguely comic.
Henry agreed to pardon Aumerle, and was reassuringly blunt about it. But his decision to pursue and punish the other conspirators showed that he was not purely merciful.
Henry pointedly told Aumerle, drawing him aside before he left, “Your mother well have prayed, and prove you true”. This looked like a warning: a shot across Aumerle’s bows constituting a considerable incentive to him to do something to prove his loyalty to Henry. The Duchess also admonished her son, pointing at him with her riding crop saying “I pray God make thee new”.
Scene 5.4 was entirely cut for reasons which would soon become obvious.
A massive section of the stage tilted up to reveal a large deep recess beneath. On reflection this transformation of the stage, with the RSC showing off the full capabilities of their new theatre, began to look like spectacle for the sake of it. Was this the RST or was it Tracy Island? Impossible to tell. The deployment of the full toy box of effects contrasted with the simplicity of the very effective and uncomplicated staging of the play by Shakespeare At The Tobacco Factory.
Gradually as the glassy underside of the panel came to rest, the figure of Richard became dimly visible in its reflection as he began to speak (5.5). At first it seemed that Richard was the other side of a translucent panel chained to a sloping surface just behind it, but the clanking of the chains by which he was held prisoner determined his precise location as in the recess, with the shiny panel showing a dim reflection of his recumbent form.
It was somehow disappointing that the beginning of Richard’s most eloquent and quiet speech, the one in which as a helpless and humbled prisoner he shows his frailty and begins to win us over with his humility, the most verbal and personal passage in the play, was heralded by an attention-seeking demonstration by the set, which continued, literally and metaphorically, to overshadow the focus of our interest.
The set design trumped the language, where the staging should have achieved the opposite. The chains were at times very noisy and risked drowning out individual words, particularly when Richard finally rose to a standing position and we could see him clearly in the dungeon recess.
In keeping with the lack of respect for the words, some very touching parts of the speech such as the specific content of his “thoughts divine” and “scruples” were cut, by skipping straight from “For no thought is contented” to “Thus play I…” But his flipping between wishing himself a beggar and then a king was kept. Music was played which jarred with him.
Also cut was the reference to the “numb’ring clock” with its analogy between the face, body and timepiece. This sequence was an essential expression of the effects of imprisonment on his state of mind and as such was integral to the depiction of Richard at this moment. Cutting the phrase on the grounds that the audience would not ‘get it’, ignored the key point that this opacity deliberately points to his distracted condition. The excision therefore had the effect of making Richard appear relatively mentally composed.
Filleting a scene of its more obscure parts displays a lack of trust in either the audience’s knowledge or its inquisitiveness and sense of wonder. Any production that cares about the language of this play should leave this marvellous scene intact.
The Groom (Elliot Barnes-Worrell again) came to visit and spoke to Richard about his favourite horse. His use of the word “erned” was emended to “yearned”.
The Keeper (Joshua Richards again) brought Richard food and unchained him so that he could eat it, but would not taste it as he usually did. The reference to Exton was changed so that 5.5.100 read “Sir Piers of Exton, who There lately came one from the King, commands the contrary”.
Suspecting a plot, Richard attacked the Keeper and the other murderers burst in. Richard did very well to attack and kill them. The last one stabbed Richard in the back, but with his dying energy Richard ripped off his killer’s balaclava. It was Aumerle. Gasps echoed out from the audience.
Richard’s mention of “Exton” at 5.5.109 was obviously cut following Pope’s emendation, which had the effect not only of facilitating the changed ending, but of making the line metrical. He gazed at his friend and stressed quizzically “thy fierce hand” so that the phrase became another “Et tu, Brute?”
The ending had been changed to create a moment of almost Victorian melodrama, possibly very confusing for any of the schoolchildren viewing the special schools’ broadcast of the recording, who presumably would need to be informed that the ending was not the one that Shakespeare actually wrote.
Taking the changed ending on its own terms raises the question whether Aumerle killed Richard to prove his loyalty to Henry after his narrow escape from death at the new monarch’s hands following the uncovering of his role in the plot against the king.
The only problem with the staging of Richard’s death was that as he collapsed dead, he disappeared out of sight into the dungeon recess.
Exton’s lines were given to Aumerle and the transferred words served well at expressing Aumerle’s very particular regret at his actions.
King Henry was flown in on the gantry with his orb and sceptre, making a regal appearance before receiving news of rebel captures (5.6). York stood in attendance, now walking with the aid of a stick, marking his enfeeblement.
Aumerle dragged in an open coffin containing Richard’s dead body. Henry made a big display of descending from the gantry in order to castigate him, with his references to Exton changed to Aumerle.
Northumberland and the other nobles backed away from Henry when they realised that Richard had been murdered, apparently on Henry’s instructions. Richard tried to assuage the departing men with “Lords, I protest, my soul is full of woe”.
Henry and York stooped over the coffin to gaze at Richard’s body. Henry then looked out to the audience and vowed “to make a voyage to the Holy Land / To wash this blood from off my guilty hand”, holding his hand out as if disgusted by imagining it stained with Richard’s blood.
Richard then appeared in spotlight and walked onto the gantry to look down at the scene of Henry’s appalled expression and outstretched hand, with York still knelt in sadness over the coffin. The lights extinguished.
This final image of Henry vowing to undertake a journey that he would never make overlooked by Richard, could be seen as a foreshadowing of his death. The only Jerusalem that Henry would reach would be the Jerusalem Chamber in which he died. And the Jerusalem Chamber, built by Richard II, has a roof decorated with his emblem. So that when Henry looked upwards dying he would have seen an emblematic reminder of Richard. This staging with Henry looking aghast, thinking about ‘Jerusalem’ with Richard physically above him looking down seemed to echo the circumstances of Henry’s death.
Tennant’s Richard was a stunning combination of the extremely feminised and the uncompromisingly dislikeable, while also providing a fascinatingly textured characterisation.
While this production was intricately detailed, it suffered in comparison with the Tobacco Factory version, which being a small dark room with no set tends to strip plays to their linguistic core and delivers that core of language at close quarters.
By contrast, the huge RST auditorium lacked studio theatre intimacy and sometimes the elaborate staging shifted focus from the poetic meat of the language. The ‘Tracy Island’ prison sequence encapsulated this striving for visual effect while simultaneously not trusting the full text.
The melodramatic rewrite of the ending meant that the production strayed into adaptation territory.