The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Tobacco Factory Bristol, 13 April 2013
“Please note there is a dog in today’s performance”, said the notice outside the auditorium. Underneath were instructions from Launce not to leave food under seats, as this might tempt his dog Crab. Two characters had already been introduced and a comic note struck before the performance had begun.
If this was a bold move, it was nothing compared with the production’s textual additions and reordering of scenes.
The costumes were Edwardian era, all cream suits and stiff dresses. Three café tables were in place for the start of the performance. Valentine (Jack Bannell) and Proteus (Piers Wehner) sat around the centre one (1.1). Valentine’s opening speech beginning with “Cease to persuade…” was cut, replaced by a song beginning with the same words delivered to them by the café songstress (Eva Tausig). This tuneful interlude over, Proteus was the first to speak asking Valentine “Wilt thou be gone?”
After establishing that Valentine was off to Milan and Proteus staying at home out of love for Julia, the production text (Dominic Power), audaciously introduced an entirely new plotline.
Proteus presented Valentine with an elegant sword, a family heirloom given to him by his father. He drew it from its scabbard and, holding it horizontally, showed Valentine its silvery lustre, which reflected both their faces. Valentine drew too close and his breath misted the metal, but their reflections were restored when this mist evaporated.
Proteus insisted that, should he ever prove disloyal to Valentine, his friend should use this very sword to strike at him.
This insertion was so skilfully handled and well-written that it was almost imperceptible.
The device of a sword reflecting the image of their friendship, only to be temporarily obscured by the hot breath (of Valentine’s anger) and then restored, was a poetic microcosm of the entire story.
After Valentine’s departure, Proteus addressed his “He after honour hunts, I after love” to the waiter (Alan Coveney) who was clearing tables.
In another departure from the text, Speed’s conversation with Proteus was replaced by an entirely new sequence. Launce (Chris Donnelly), accompanied by Crab (Lollio), spoke briefly with Speed (Marc Geoffrey) explaining that he had bungled the delivery of Proteus’ letter to Julia by handing the missive to Lucetta and that Crab had disgraced himself by humping her leg.
Proteus himself then appeared and Launce told his master the story in greater detail, recounting how Crab had become “amorous” about a lady’s leg. In his nervousness, Launce mispronounced Lucetta as “bruschetta”.
Proteus reacted by saying that Crab should be shot and drowned, which prompted concern for the dog. But Proteus was placated when Launce further explained that the mischance had befallen Julia’s maid rather than Julia herself.
This early appearance by Crab established his performance style, which was a dogged refusal to speak in reply to his master’s persistent complaints.
Julia (Dorothea Myer-Bennett) went through a list of her suitors, asking Lucetta (Nicky Goldie) which of them she thought most suitable (1.2). When Julia mentioned Proteus, Lucetta pulled Proteus’ letter from her dress as if tentatively gesturing to deliver it, a haste motivated by her subsequent comment that she thought Proteus the best of Julia’s suitors. She eventually handed over the letter, but Julia thrust it back at her. The maid then left Julia alone with her thoughts.
As Julia leant against a pillar, Proteus walked around the back of the audience seating, filling the air with a love song dedicated to her. This prompted Julia’s change of heart and a desire to look at the letter properly.
Julia called for Lucetta, who was still very keen for Julia to take delivery. She dropped the letter, stared back at Julia as if to draw attention to it, and then picked it up again. She stuffed the note away, only bringing it out again to claim “it will not lie where it concerns”. At “I cannot reach so high” Lucetta held the letter up as if teasing Julia to take it.
But when Julia finally took hold of the letter she frantically tore it into pieces that scattered on the ground. She was immediately full of regret, shaking her own hands, the “injurious wasps” that had done the damage, as if disowning them.
She scrabbled around on her hands and knees picking up pieces of the letter that had Proteus’ name written on them. She scornfully flicked a scrap bearing her name away with her finger and then fretted about what to do with a slip that contained both their names together.
Dorothea Myer-Bennett managed to make this sequence both amusing and also a sincere expression of her character’s heartfelt love.
Realising that Julia would eventually want the whole letter, Lucetta gathered the scraps of paper from the ground. Indeed, seeming to regret her previous rashness, Julia made sure that Lucetta picked up the piece with her name on it that she had previously made of point of flicking away.
Antonio (David Plimmer) agreed with Pantino’s (Thomas Frere) advice that Proteus should follow Valentine and gain some worldly experience (1.3). Proteus entered kissing a letter he had received from Julia, which he hastily hid when his father questioned him about it. Proteus pretended the letter was from Valentine, and that his friend wished Proteus were with him. His father seized on this as a happy coincidence and used it as the pretext to announce his sending forth.
Proteus bemoaned the fact that his subterfuge had rebounded on him and that hiding Julia’s letter had accelerated his separation from her.
In an invented sequence, Julia complained to Lucetta that she had made her love Proteus, who had now been sent away. Lucetta pointed out Proteus and suggested that Julia speak with him.
Proteus told Julia of his departure and they exchanged rings as love tokens (2.2). She insisted on them sharing “a holy kiss”. She pecked him briefly, as if her passion had suddenly overcome her modesty. When Proteus bade Julia farewell, their lips came close together, an opportunity that Julia seized by grabbing him and kissing him for longer. That done, she walked away briskly without saying a word, prompting Proteus to remark on her silent departure.
Launce led in Crab and handed the lead to an audience member, mumbling “Take him!” before addressing the rest of us with his grievances against his unsympathetic companion. The anti-Semitic reference were removed here, as others were from the rest of the play.
Emphasising his distress, Launce blew his nose on his handkerchief, which he then placed under his hat for safekeeping.
Lollio was quite an old black Labrador, who sat, panted and looked on adoringly as his master (and real-life owner) criticised him.
Launce placed his shoes on opposite pillar seats, the one representing his mother had a hole in it and was offered to an audience member so that they could smell “my mother’s breath up and down”. Someone groaned at the sole/soul pun and Launce offered a disconsolate “It doesn’t get any better”.
His stick was used to represent his sister, even though it wasn’t “white as a lily”. Launce’s increasing confusion was juxtaposed with his dog’s placid demeanour, making him seem all the more manic.
Pantino tried to hurry Launce along to catch up with the departing Proteus. But Launce outwitted him, turning his reference to the “tide” into a reference to Crab who was “tied”. Launce teasingly placed his finger over Pantino’s mouth, suggesting that Pantino might lose his tongue. When Pantino asked where, Launce said “in thy tale”, gesturing at Pantino’s rear, implying that the gentleman was unhealthily self-absorbed.
The change of scene to Milan was introduced with an extended song sequence during which waiters set out chairs, tables and table cloths (2.1).
Speed held aloft a glove thinking it was Valentine’s. But his master soon recognised it as Silvia’s, sending him into a rhapsody over his new love. He stood on the pillar seat as if looking out for her.
Speed recognised Valentine was in love by the way he crossed his arms and his general moping around.
Such was Valentine’s touchiness that when Speed remarked “You never saw her since she was deformed”, he seized Speed by the lapels and shouted as if in panic “How long hath she been deformed?” Fortunately Speed was able to quench this fiery anger by retorting “Ever since you loved her”.
Speed pointed out that Valentine’s judgment was flawed and that he had not noticed his own shoe was untied (shoe replacing the original text’s reference to hose). The fact that Valentine’s repost, kept in the original, criticised Speed for not wiping his master’s shoes, gave the entire exchange a neat coherence. Speed told Valentine to sit down so that his ardour and enthusiasm for Silvia would not be so apparent, a bawdy joke suggesting his arousal.
Silvia (Lisa Kay) appeared in her fine white outfit and sat at the table with Valentine, while Speed retreated to a table in the corner. A drink was brought for Silvia. She smiled at her “servant” as if secretly pleased with his enthralment to her and relishing the trick she was playing on him.
Valentine presented her with the letter she had asked him to write to a “secret nameless friend”. She thrust it back at him, dropping increasingly clearer hints that it was meant for him, and made to leave. She became flustered at Valentine’s inability to understand her subterfuge and left without touching her drink, departing with a backward glance and loud huff at her suitor’s ineptitude.
Relaxing at the far off table, Speed nonchalantly elucidated the seemingly obvious fact that Silvia had got Valentine to write a letter to himself.
Speed announced it was dinner time, and Valentine’s disconsolate “I have dined” was infused with his disappointment at his own foolishness.
After Valentine had left, this scene merged into 2.5 in which Launce and Crab arrived in Milan and were greeted by Speed. Launce placed his hat on the café table and celebrated his arrival by downing the drink that Silvia had left behind, which he promptly spat out. His distaste for the fine drink explained his suggestion to Speed that they should visit the ale house.
Speed asked him if Julia and Proteus were to marry. After seeming to answer no, Launce played on Speed’s use of “stand” to bring out its bawdy sense with “when it stands well with him, it stands well with her”. Speed said he did not understand, enabling Launce to further develop the joke by raising his staff in a priapic gesture to comment that his staff “understands me”, i.e. that by being raised in that way it exemplified the jest he was making. But he also leant on it so show how it stood under him.
Launce referred Speed to his dog for an answer: “If he say ‘Ay’, it will; if he say ‘No’, it will”. Glancing at the approaching Crab, he raised the pitch of his voice into one suitable for the encouragement of his pet and concluded “If he shake his tail and say nothing, it will”. On this occasion, Lollio did indeed become excited and wag his tail in appreciation of his master’s attention.
After this tour de force of human/canine interaction, the ensuing play on words that confused Speed’s reference to his master as a “lover” and Launce’s characterisation of him as a mere “lubber” felt rather flat.
The waiter came to clear away the tables, which were removed from the stage. Launce took up his hat but left his handkerchief behind, which the waiter invited him to take with him.
Silvia cast loving glances at Valentine and there was something playfully mocking about Silvia’s constant reference to him as her “servant” (2.4). The competition over Silvia between Valentine and the much older and punctilious Turio (Paul Currier) was expressed in their pithy trading of insults. Silvia seemed happy to be the cause of this “fine volley of words” between the rivals.
The Duke of Milan (Peter Clifford), looking remarkably like King George V, informed Valentine that his friend Proteus had arrived, leading Valentine to praise Proteus effusively. The young man entered and Valentine presented him to Silvia. At first Proteus showed no obvious sign of being smitten with her.
Silvia left the two friends together. As she departed, the amorous Turio tendered his arm for her to hold, but she breezed past without noticing him.
Valentine poetically described how he had come under love’s spell. Proteus was careful not to agree with Valentine’s effusive praise. He said he would not flatter Silvia and did not consider her “a heavenly saint” but only “an earthly paragon”.
However, the reality behind Proteus’ apparent disdain for Silvia soon became apparent, and at an ironic moment. When Proteus harked back to Julia, proclaiming “Have I not reason to prefer mine own?” he picked up Silvia’s book, which she had left behind on her chair, and smelt it, possibly discerned a trace of her scent.
Valentine made the mistake of telling Proteus that he and Silvia were betrothed and were planning to elope after rescuing her from a high tower using a rope ladder.
Instead of going with Valentine to further advise him, Proteus stayed behind to confess to us that he had fallen for Silvia. His slow deliberate explanation of how one love had been displaced by another, showed his conversion to be incomplete: he referred to “Julia that I love” but hastily corrected this to “that I did love”. This hinted that he was deceiving himself when he insisted that the displacement had been clean and perfect like one nail driving out another. This tiny hint would help to make the denouement of the play more credible.
Proteus seemed genuinely surprised at where his heart had led him. He sat in silence on Silvia’s chair, clutching her book and lost in his thoughts on one side of the stage, while on the other side Julia appeared and asked Lucetta how she could journey to find Proteus (2.7).
Lucetta at first tried to dissuade her, but Julia spoke of her love being like a fire or a torrent, which raged more violently for being suppressed, kneeling to beg Lucetta’s assistance. The maid finally relented, saying “But in what habit will you go along?” at which point Julia rose and shook her fists in victory.
Julia proposed to go in disguise as a man, but seemed disconcerted at Lucetta’s insistence that she would have then to cut her hair. With a tinge of pain in her voice at the thought of losing her lovely tresses, Julia insisted that she would only have to tie it up. The text’s reference to a codpiece was changed to a trouser fly to fit the Edwardian setting.
In a change to the text, Lucetta decided to accompany Julia, taking over the function of the Host in later scenes. This was achieved by some new dialogue.
Lucetta suggested that she could go disguised as a man too and could brandish a pistol and dagger. Julia countered that this disguise might provoke quarrels, and proposed that Lucetta pretend to be her sister. But Lucetta finally decided on posing as ‘Sebastian’s’ mother, which would enable her to “pass without annoy”.
All the while Proteus sat in full view and pondered. The staging created the clear implication that Julia was present in his thoughts and that they were filling him with guilt.
Julia and Lucetta departed. Proteus cast Silvia’s book aside and rose to address us again, continuing with 2.6. Having observed his long, silent distress, we could understand the depth of his predicament and how his heart’s prompting to leave Julia, love Silvia and betray Valentine conflicted with his better nature.
This soliloquised rationalisation by Proteus and his detailed consideration of his position, gave him a depth completely absent from Valentine, who had veered from dim-witted insouciance to volatile passion without seeming to engage in any form of reflection.
Of the two, Proteus was more the thoughtful but therefore also the most calculating and potentially treacherous.
He coldly concluded that he would “forget that Julia is alive” and “Valentine I’ll hold an enemy aiming at Silvia as a sweeter friend”. He told us that he would betray the secret elopement to Silvia’s father the Duke and then deal with rival Turio. On that chillingly nefarious note, the interval came.
The second half began with Speed singing a mildly bawdy song to Silvia’s glove. Turio accompanied Proteus and the Duke, carrying a large whisky decanter and with a large cigar in his mouth, tempting the others to join him in these earthy pleasures (3.1). But the Duke asked Turio to leave them in peace, the slow droop of the cigar in Turio’s mouth witnessing his dejection.
Proteus got his plot underway by telling the Duke about Valentine and Silvia’s flight. His obnoxious insistence that he was loathed to snitch on a friend and was only doing so from a sense of duty, drew some muttering from the recently refreshed audience.
The Duke then conveniently met Valentine, who was wearing a long coat with a slight bulge around the middle.
Valentine’s lie that he was hurrying to pass letters to a messenger was much less skilled than the whole pack of fibs that Proteus had just delivered. This reinforced Proteus’ status as the more consummate deceiver.
The would-be eloper fell completely for the Duke’s story that he need advice on how to escape with his new love, who was sequestered in a high tower. Valentine suggested using a rope ladder concealed under a coat. It was only when the Duke insisted that Valentine open his own coat so that he could examine it that Valentine realised he had been duped.
The coat was opened and Valentine’s rope ladder fell out. One rung was fixed over his neck so that the rest unfurled onto the ground. This enabled the Duke to take up the other end and drape the ladder between the two of them, finally pulling on his end to draw Valentine close to him.
The letter in the original text was replaced by the device of the Duke discovering Silvia’s name inscribed on the top rung of Valentine’s ladder. The Duke compared him to Phaeton driving the sun to close to the earth in his “daring folly”, concluding by banishing him.
Valentine described this punishment as a “living torment” equal to death. He stressed the phrase “She is my essence” as it was a neat and powerful summary of what she meant to him.
Proteus caught up with Valentine, who was unwilling to hear any good news his friend might have. Asked if Silvia were dead, Proteus assured “No, Valentine”, a phrase which Valentine took up angrily repeating it as “No Valentine” as he ruminated over whether Silvia had abandoned him.
Launce reported that Valentine had been “vanished”, which Proteus corrected to “banishèd”, a lesson that Launce retained for later.
Valentine sat on the ground and sobbed about his “dolour”. There was a hint that Proteus was actually unhappy to see Valentine in this distraught condition and that his advice to be hopeful and let time work a cure was partly sincere.
Proteus brought along the sword he had given to Valentine and handed it to him again when he warned him of the perils of his banishment, saying “Regard thy danger”.
This insistence by Proteus that Valentine keep the sword with him could have been another product of Proteus’ guilt at his betrayal of his friend and a semi-conscious desire to be punished for this fault.
Left alone by the departure of the others, Launce drew out the “cate-log” of virtues he had composed about his new love, which Speed was soon present to comment on.
Launce opened his jacket when saying that she was not a maid “for she hath had gossips”.
Speed read the full list out so that Launce could reflect on it. When his friend got to “Item: She can spin.” Launce sat back and opened his legs implying that her ability to “spin for her living” meant something sexual, as in spinning flax from a distaff: the same as the “spin it off” gag in Twelfth Night.
The clowning continued into the list of her vices. Great amusement was derived from “She is slow in words” rapidly being promoted into a virtue. The fact that she had no teeth was of no account because Crab (not Launce) loved crusts.
The final fact about her, that she had money, sealed the deal conclusively. This enabled Launce to inform Speed that he had better run to catch up with his master.
A final trading of insults saw Speed describe his master as “banished” with Launce correcting him to the more metrical “banishèd”, which was a good textual joke and indicated that he had remembered his master’s earlier correction.
Proteus continued to be obsequiously helpful to the Duke, who was plotting to make his daughter Silvia fall for Turio (3.2). He advised the Duke to have Valentine’s reputation slandered, and by a friend. But he objected when the Duke suggested him for the task.
The Duke overruled Proteus’ moral objection with spurious reasoning and Turio asked Proteus to sing his praises. Proteus realised how difficult this would be and so recommended that Turio make an effort himself and compose love sonnets and sing songs to Silvia. They agreed to procure some musicians and serenade her that evening.
The outlaws lay in wait to rob passers-by in the forest (4.1). They sprung their trap as Valentine and Speed approached. Valentine was searched and the sword gifted to him by Proteus was taken from him.
Valentine objected that he had nothing of value other than the clothes he stood up in and told the outlaws he had been banished for killing a man. One of the outlaws comically characterised this as “so small a fault”.
The humour of that remark was surpassed when the female outlaw (Eva Tausig again) took a shine to Valentine. Her description of him as “beautified with goodly shape” was a blatant flirtation, only cut short when she was thrust aside by another bandit.
Valentine was offered the position of their general, and threatened with death if he refused. He accepted the kind offer on condition they did no harm to women and poor travellers.
In an invented sequence, Julia and Lucetta arrived in Milan. Julia wore a tweed outfit with a cap to hide her hair and Lucetta addressed her as “son Sebastian” to cement her adopted identity in the audience’s mind. They set off once more to seek out Proteus.
Proteus described how, despite his scheming, Silvia would constantly remind him of his disloyalty to both Valentine and Julia (4.2). As he and Turio prepared to serenade Silvia, Julia and Lucetta appeared at the other end of the stage and hid behind pillars to observe.
A trio of musicians provided musical accompaniment for Proteus’ wooing. Julia was disturbed to hear her love singing another woman’s praises. This was particularly galling for her because she had previously been serenaded in exactly the same way by Proteus: it was his singing that had finally persuaded her to reconsider his love letter.
Turio left thinking that the more experienced Proteus would plead for him. Silvia appeared up in a corner of the performance space representing her house and summarily dismissed Proteus as soon as she recognised him. This was consistent with the serial rejections Proteus had mentioned at the start of the scene.
Julia’s turmoil only increased when Proteus assured Silvia that his former love was dead. But Silvia, dripping effortlessly with disdain, was having none of it. She reminded Proteus of his loyalty to his friend, and her fiancé, Valentine. If Proteus presumed Valentine dead, argued Silvia, then so was she because her love was buried in Valentines’ grave.
Proteus requested that Silvia supply him with a picture of herself, which she agreed to, seeing it apt for his false love to devote itself to a mere image.
Instead of asking the Host where Proteus lodged, Julia put this question to Silvia’s maid Ursula (Eva Tausig again), who informed her “Marry, at my friend’s house”.
The dapper Eglamour (Alan Coveney again) told us he was due to meet with Silvia upon some errand (4.3). Silvia appeared and explained that she wanted him to accompany her to Mantua so that she could be reunited with Valentine. In the middle of their conversation, the Duke her father walked past and said good-day to them, underscoring her later comment about being spied upon.
Eglamour agreed, and as they departed they signalled their accord by each accompanying their “Good morrow” with a furtive crook of the finger towards the nose.
The final scene with Launce and Crab (4.4) was the funniest, but it also proved difficult for the actor because by now the audience had acquired such an affection for the adorable Labrador that Launce had problems keeping their attention on himself and away from his silent companion.
Launce explained how he had offered Crab as a present to Silvia but that the dog had disgraced himself by peeing under the table, a fault for which Launce had taken the blame to save his dog’s life.
Proteus addressed ‘Sebastian’ by name before asking Launce if he had delivered the dog to Silvia. Launce explained that the little dog or “squirrel” that he should have taken had been stolen. He had offered Crab instead, the bigger dog being a more substantial present, but she had rejected it.
Proteus did not appreciate the logic of this and ordered Launce to find the original dog. Launce exited briskly, but Crab followed him more slowly, his lead trailing between his legs. Proteus had stood by the exit pointing towards it with an extended finger to indicate where Launce should depart. He stayed fixed in this precise position waiting for the tardy Crab to follow his master out, tracking Crab’s slow progress and giving him a final word of encouragement as he exited through the doorway. This greatly amused the audience.
Proteus turned to the disguised Julia asking her to collect Silvia’s picture and take a ring to her. Recognising it as the gift that she had given to Proteus, Julia turned away to say “It seems you love her not, to leave her token”. She continued the extended exchange about the ring facing away from Proteus, fighting the tears swelling in her eyes as she felt the injury of his gesture.
Proteus also gave her a letter to take to Silvia and then left her alone. Julia’s “How many women would do such a message?” was remarkable for the way in which Julia’s pain was clearly conveyed and the moment unmistakably distinct from the comic mayhem of much of the rest of the production. It was impossible not to feel for her.
A bell chimed and Julia walked slowly towards the exit. This was remarkably (and possibly deliberately) reminiscent of Macbeth’s “I go, and it is done” moment.
Silvia and her maid Ursula swept through at the opposite entrance. Seizing her chance, Julia made her request and Silvia had Ursula hand the picture over to her.
Julia offered a letter to Silvia, but it was clearly the old tattered letter from Proteus that she had carefully reassembled. She took back the precious keepsake and presented Silvia with the correct letter. No matter, Silvia tore the letter up anyway (the remnants were collected later by Proteus in an echo of Julia’s gathering up of shreds).
Julia offered Silvia the ring, but she refused it on the grounds that it was the one Julia had given to Proteus. She said that though Proteus’ false finger had profaned the ring, she would not do such a wrong to his Julia.
Julia appreciated this kind and loyal gesture so much that she momentarily forgot her disguise to say “She thanks you” in her natural female voice, correcting herself soon after to “I thank you” in her assumed male voice.
This led into a discussion in which ‘Sebastian’ alluded to how well she knew Julia’s sadness, touching on the similarities between them. Silvia gave Julia her purse and left her alone, allowing Julia to praise Silvia’s manifest virtues.
She placed the picture of Silvia on the pillar seat and began a fretful comparison of her own features with the beauty of the portrait. She looked at a nearby member of the audience and showed them her “eyes as grey as glass” which she said were identical to Silvia’s.
Julia clawed her fingers over the picture saying that her liking for Silvia prevented her from scratching its eyes out so that Proteus would not love the image so much.
After a brief scene in which Eglamour and Silvia set off to Mantua (5.1), we saw Proteus explain to Turio that Silvia did not consider him attractive (5.2).
As Proteus offered his diplomatic comments on Turio’s inadequacies, the disguised Julia stood to his side, facing in the opposite direction, and offering her own withering put-downs, which Proteus could hear but Turio could not.
Proteus appreciated his page’s quick wit and tapped ‘Sebastian’ on the shoulder in appreciation, while maintaining an unamused straight face toward Turio. Although still unaware of the page’s true identity, Proteus’ appreciation of Julia’s humour witnessed the undiminished bond between them.
The Duke enquired after Eglamour and his daughter, but neither Proteus nor Turio had seen them. The Duke concluded that she had fled to see Valentine accompanied by Eglamour, and ordered Proteus and Turio to follow him in his pursuit of the escapees.
Turio agreed to be revenged on Eglamour, Proteus followed for love of Silvia and Julia went too, still clutching Silvia’s picture, saying she bore her no hate and only wanted to stop Proteus.
Silvia cried as she was dragged onstage by her outlaw captors (5.3). We learnt that Eglamour had escaped. The brigands took Silvia away to see their leader, Valentine.
Valentine, with Proteus’ sword strapped to his back, declared how the solitary life in the forest pleased him more than life in town (5.4). He heard a commotion and withdrew, perching behind the pillar on its seat to hide from those approaching.
Proteus had rescued Silvia from the outlaws and Julia brandished a musket to chase one of them briskly in one door and out another, so that her first aside commenting on the situation was cut.
Silvia was far from happy at being rescued by Proteus, rejecting his advances and continuing to remind him of Julia, who had now joined them.
Proteus’ attempted ravishment of Silvia prompted Valentine to rush forward from behind the pillar and pull a very surprised Proteus away from her. For quite some time, Silvia leant against a pillar seat breathless and sobbing in distress.
The original text’s rapid turnaround, with Proteus’ almost instantaneous conversion to good and Valentine’s equally immediate forgiveness against a background of utter silence from Silvia, was extensively reworked with additional dialogue that completely changed the tone of the ending of the play, with a much more active role for Silvia.
The sword given by Proteus to Valentine again came into play. Valentine shouted at Proteus, who knelt and expressed his remorse, finally demanding that Valentine use his sword to kill him. Valentine pointed the sword at Proteus.
Julia, in invented lines, pleaded with Valentine to spare Proteus’ life. But the decisive intervention was made by Silvia. She rescued her love by taking the sword from Proteus, and went to stand on the nearby pillar seat to observe and comment on events.
Valentine was now satisfied with his friend’s remorse, declaring “Then I am paid” and knelt facing Proteus so that the newly-reconciled friends could embrace.
Valentine concluded with his astonishing announcement “All that was mine in Silvia I give to thee”. Silvia exclaimed in shock at her apparent abandonment.
The prospect of losing Proteus to Silvia caused Julia to faint. She partly recovered and explained woozily that she had not delivered the ring to Silvia. In her confusion, she showed Proteus the ring that he had given to her. This was an honest mistake caused by her grogginess.
But she took advantage of the error, and explained that she had come by the ring because she was in fact Julia. Although no element of her disguise was removed or altered, the reveal was nevertheless convincing.
Impressed by her constancy, Proteus swore his love for her and they were reconciled.
The outlaws burst in together with the Duke and Turio, with the latter laying claim to Silvia. From her vantage point overlooking events, she retorted sarcastically in an invented aside “Whose love am I?”
Valentine threatened Turio with death unless he abandoned his claim. Turio relented in the face of this duress, proving the shallowness of his pretended affection as he concluded “I claim her not, and therefore is she thine.”
Silvia, who had moments earlier been offered like a chattel by Valentine, now commented “Twice this day I have been given!”
The Duke, disgusted at Turio for leaving his daughter “on such slight conditions”, revoked Valentine’s banishment and told him “take thou thy Silvia, for thou hast deserved her”. This prompted the increasingly bemused Silvia to call out “Thrice given!”
As Valentine accepted the Duke’s ‘gift’, Silvia commented that she would rather be “the giver, not the gift”. This was fully consistent with the feistiness she had previously displayed, but obviously ran contrary to the original text in which Silvia is silent.
Although he had not heard Silvia’s asides, Valentine proposed to Silvia, asking for her consent as she had wished. She now came forward, the sword in her hand, and accepted his proposal.
Valentine asked the Duke to pardon the other outlaws, to which he assented. The outlaws still had Eglamour’s trousers, which they passed one to the other until the last outlaw handed them back to Eglamour, who had been standing trouser-less a brief while for comic effect.
Valentine asked the Duke what he thought of the page. The Duke began his answer, just as Julia, still in her disguise as Sebastian, began to kiss Proteus. The sight of this apparent anomaly caused the Duke to falter in his answer.
Valentine wrapped up events and proposed a joint wedding. The two fiancés held their arms out for their women to take. But Julia and Silvia exchanged a knowing look, linked arms with each other and walked off together, Silvia still holding Proteus’ sword (symbolising friendship as well as power), in a display of solidarity that had grown out their developing mutual respect.
After an initial curtain call, music struck up and a song “Cease to persuade, cease to disdain” accompanied a formal dance, which saw the couples pair up again and the men sweep the women off their feet.
The production was exceedingly entertaining with a high standard of performance overall, not least from its canine actor Lollio, backed by inventive directorial touches and a wonderfully effective use of music.
Though not a full-blown Nahum Tate-style rewrite, the ending was substantially reworked and had a 21st century sensibility that was very satisfying for the audience. But this came at the expense of depriving them of the problems posed by the original.
The insertion of the sword plot line that threaded its way from Proteus and Valentine’s first scene through to their final confrontation, seemed to be motivated by nothing more than the adapter relishing his ability to write new lines and passing them off as Shakespeare’s.
While these radical changes to the play were intriguing, the audience was not made aware of them. Anyone for whom this production was their introduction to the play might find subsequent versions confusing, no doubt wondering what had happened to Silvia’s assertiveness at the play’s conclusion.
Many productions tweak the original text to varying extents. So at what point does an audience deserve an explanation that what they are seeing is not the play as written?
Richard III, Tobacco Factory Bristol, 15 March 2013
John Mackay’s Richard bounded into the centre of the space without the customary dimming of the lights that usually heralds the start of a Tobacco Factory performance (1.1). Keeping the lights bright across the space reinforced the bond of complicity inherent in Richard’s opening address to the audience.
The bright illumination showed us the full detail of his tall lean frame and short white hair. This Richard was reminiscent of a gangling vulture whose height enabled him to glance down at his victims from the perspective of a bird of prey in flight.
His manner was not angry or insane, but energetic. The energy that burst out of him underpinned Richard’s desire to have a “world to bustle in”.
Such was the pleasure this Richard took in his machinations that Andrew Hilton loaned him a perfectly apt line from 3 Henry 6: “I can smile and murder whiles I smile”. This was a perfect summary of Richard Mackay’s characterisation. His Richard was sane but brutal. Feverish madness would have been superfluous, even an indication of weakness.
With insanity underplayed, deformity also took a back seat: a slight limp and a twist of his thin arm were the only indications of physical defect.
While taking us into his confidence, Richard pointed offstage to the unseen “son of York” whom he also gestured at when referring to “this fair proportion”.
The iron columns of the performance space had been faced with wood with seat ledges at the bottom, so that they resembled thin versions of Globe columns. Near the top of each column, arms were hung up for monuments, which Richard tapped when referring to the peacetime redundancy of these instruments of war.
Richard crooked his finger into a G to illustrate the ominous letter that had earned Clarence his imprisonment. Clarence (Rupert Holliday Evans) was brought in under guard. It was possible at this point to register that the production was using period costume.
The intimacy of the Tobacco Factory space promoted identification and sympathy with Richard. He came across as comical and our confidant. This enhanced the text’s attempt to make Richard familiar to us.
His yellow stockings were faintly reminiscent of Malvolio, perhaps influencing our view of him. There was also an element of comedy in his occasional wide-eyed, uncomprehending looks.
Richard responded to Brakenbury’s (Jack Bannell) intervention with light-hearted sarcasm, which made the audience laugh. His ribald remark about Mistress Shore “He that doth naught with her” was accompanied by an illustrative hip thrust stressing the “naught”.
Henry VI’s body was carried in on a pallet accompanied by Dorothea Myer-Bennett’s Lady Anne (1.2). Richard appeared at a corner entrance located at the top of the raked seating so that he looked down onto the main space.
When stopping the cortege, he made a firm, insistent threat. He did not splutter with rage, but spoke in the manner of someone who expected to be obeyed, deploying only that degree of menace required to secure obedience.
Anne pulled back the shroud to reveal a real actor’s body (Andrew Macbean) with fake bleeding wounds. The fact that the corpse was obviously a real person made the reveal very effective, particularly at such close range.
Richard and Anne knelt either side of the body for their fractious dispute.
They eventually moved aside and Anne was shocked by Richard’s assertion that he was fit for her bedchamber. This audacious effrontery threw her off balance and for a flickering instant she dropped her furious defences and considered his offer. The seed of the idea had been sown. It said something for the detail of the performance that this brief flash could come across to the audience.
Anne spat at Richard, but instantly regretted it, as if she were ashamed of reacting excessively. This was another weakness that Richard could exploit.
Richard launched into a long, overwrought speech about the effect of her beauty on him. He finally knelt, offering his sword to Anne and demanding that she strike him if she could not forgive his crimes. Anne could only hold the sword limply before letting it fall.
Richard moved in really close and kissed her neck. He offered Anne his ring to wear, which she took nervously. Despite her collapsed defences, her departing words “Imagine I have said farewell already” were spoken as she turned her back and walked briskly away from Richard, which indicated that she was at this point very much in two minds about his proposal.
“Was ever woman in this humour wooed?” saw Richard pick up his conversation with us again, as if the preceding sequence had been a demonstration of the principle he wished to elucidate.
Queen Elizabeth (Lisa Kay) furrowed her brow as she and her brothers fretted over the king’s poor health (1.3). The small stage was already quite full when Richard entered and this enhanced the impression that he was encroaching on, and then confined within, territory already dominated by his fierce opponents.
When he first entered, Richard adopted his characteristic limp and twist of the arm but then relaxed out of it. This initial display served as a reminder of his personality and was therefore not required throughout an entire scene. The point about his deformity was made and then attention was focussed on his complaints that the Queen and her faction were conspiring against him.
The role of Margaret was entirely absent from the production, so the text in this scene was cut from her first speech after coming forward, up to when Catesby (Joe Hall) brought the king’s summons to those assembled.
After another of Richard’s fireside chats with the audience about his “secret mischiefs”, he conversed with the excellently menacing murderers (Marc Geoffrey and Chris Donnelly).
Clarence sat on a mattress watched over by his jailer, who perched on a chair beside a plate of food (1.4). Clarence’s description of his fevered dream gained from being delivered in such a small space. Although not cramped, the Tobacco Factory performance area proved a more convincing cell than other larger stages.
Brakenbury handed over Clarence to his murderers with brusque resignation. The knockabout comedy of the murderers’ pre-planning woke Clarence, who defended himself eloquently, confidently noting that the murderers could scarcely utter their intention.
The scene took a novel twist when the murderers countered Clarence’s invocation of God’s vengeance on their planned crime by holding a dagger menacingly to his neck, pinning him against a pillar, as they enumerated the crimes for which Clarence could also expect such divine retribution.
Clarence was stabbed and then dragged backwards offstage.
King Edward (Christopher Bianchi) sat on an ornate chair (2.1). His sickness was indicated by his general pallor, the tremor in his voice and a slight, febrile shaking of the hands as he urged the factions to reconcile.
Hastings (Alan Coveney) in particular seemed not to be taking this insincere kissing of cheeks at all seriously, an attitude he would also demonstrate later in his airy dismissal of Stanley’s warnings about Richard.
Richard calmly announced that, contrary to the king’s expectations, Clarence had been killed. He seemed to enjoy springing this trap, relishing his awareness of his superior tactical skill. He was a professional in a world of amateurs.
Stanley (David Collins) requested mercy for his servant, which prompted strong feelings of self-loathing in Edward for having condemned Clarence to death. He rose from his chair as he fulminated against his own folly and then collapsed in a fit. Everyone left to accompany the sick king, as Richard, gaining another tactical victory, blamed the entire affair on the queen.
Clarence’s children were not included in 2.2, so their section was cut entirely, apart from lines 27-30 where the Duchess of York (Nicky Goldie) stood alone, leaning heavily on her walking stick, as she railed against the “deep deceit” and “vice” of her son.
Elizabeth re-entered in deep distress at the king’s death, again with the children’s reactions cut.
The Duchess was a sufficiently imposing figure to compensate for the absence of Margaret. She was certainly the only real match for Richard, who was visibly put out to discover her present.
He knelt before her and she delivered her blessing leant directly over him, making her a physically as well as morally dominating figure.
Buckingham (Paul Currier) tried to cheer everyone up by invoking the glowing future promised by Edward’s heir, following this with a convincing argument for the princes’ escort to be few in number.
He proved himself to be skilled at insincere rhetoric. The self-consciously dramatic performance of these words must have given Richard the idea that Buckingham would make a good tragedian in his subsequent ploy against the Mayor of London.
The scene ended with their chillingly unspecific plot to separate the princes from their reduced escort.
The brief recap scene (2.3) in which various Citizens (including Dorothea Myer-Bennett) discussed the future of the kingdom was followed by the scene in which the Prince of York (Luke Zollman Thomas) was fussed over by his mother and grandam (2.4). Responding to the news of the detention of Rivers (John Sandeman) and Grey (Piers Wehner), the queen made preparations for York to be escorted to safety.
Richard was no less patronising to the young Prince Edward (Olly Bell) than he was to the adults (3.1). Buckingham was dismissive of objections to breaking the sanctuary taken by the young Prince of York.
Prince Edward’s dislike of the Tower and his intelligent questions about its history were excellently done by the boy actor, so that Richard’s implied threat “So wise so young, they say, do never live long”, delivered as an aside to the audience, was particularly galling.
York was reunited with Edward and told Richard that his brother had outgrown him. Richard crouched down to York’s level and glanced across at Edward to confirm “He hath, my lord”. This was typical of the light-hearted banter with which Richard disguised his murderous designs.
Richard sounded out Catesby’s opinions on the pliability of Hastings and Stanley.
Buckingham’s question about the fate of Hastings should he not prove an ally, prompted Richard’s “Chop off his head, something we will determine”. This was said quickly as if not wanting to make it funny, but the audience seized on it anyway.
Presumably due to his good mood, Richard offered Buckingham the dukedom of Hereford.
In a nice touch, Mistress Shore (stage manager Polly Meech), clutching a sheet to her body, accompanied Hastings to the door as he received Stanley’s messenger, who had come warn him of Richard’s ambitions (3.2). Hastings dismissed the report of Stanley’s dream about being pursued by a boar, Richard’s symbol.
Catesby found Hastings defiantly opposed to Richard’s rule. Hastings was clearly fearless of Richard, because when Stanley then appeared in person, Hastings taunted him sarcastically about his portentous dream, asking him why he carried no boar-spear. This was a continuation of his happy-go-lucky attitude to the reconciliations forced on him earlier by King Edward.
The Pursuivant was cut, but the Priest (Peter Clifford) was kept.
A brief scene showed Rivers and Grey being escorted across the end of the performance space (3.3). They paused to rue their fate and then continued along the back and out the other side.
The council table and chairs were placed across the diagonal of the performance area (3.4).
When he turned up, Richard did not skulk like an outsider but was actually glad to see the others, another sign of his growing confidence. Hearing of Hastings’ resistance, and after disappearing briefly with Buckingham, Richard re-entered and sat at the end of the council table, pulling his chair in several times until he was wedged under it as tightly as possible.
Richard leant forward conspiratorially and the others followed suit to form a tight group over the table surface. He produced his sickly arm and laid it flat on the table for general inspection, alleging that the queen’s sorcery had withered it.
Richard seized on Hastings’ doubtful “if”, not in anger but like someone unemotionally springing a trap. He displayed no more madness than a hungry creature seizing on its prey. His order for Hastings’ beheading was likewise short and swift.
As Richard swept out of the room, Hastings was left stunned and stared straight ahead as the full significance of events caught up with him.
Richard and Buckingham prepared to dupe the Mayor of London (3.5). Having seen previous examples of Buckingham’s acting ability, Richard was optimistically playful when asking him whether he could “Murder thy breath in middle of a word”. Hastings head was brought to Richard before its scripted appearance and some invented lines had Richard look inside the bag and declare “Hello Hastings!” before the arrival of the Mayor (Rupert Holliday Evans).
When the bag containing Hastings’ head was shown to him in front of the Mayor, Richard acted distraught and sobbed “I must weep…” in an hypocritical display that was the complete opposite of his flippant attitude in the earlier invented sequence.
The Mayor had a cockney accent, which was a nice piece of reverse regional characterisation from this Bristol company. Needless to say the Mayor was completely taken in by the conspirators’ pantomime.
Richard said he would isolate the princes from their guardians in a speech supplemented by a key passage from 3 Henry VI: “I can smile, and murder whiles I smile”. Andrew Hilton could obviously not resist importing this line, because it was a perfect summary of Mackay’s characterisation, which, instead of suggesting some exculpatory infirmity of mind, emphasised the real pleasure Richard took in his actions.
At this point the interval came. There was no scene 3.6 with the Scrivener, which meant that the second half began with 3.7.
Buckingham reported back to Richard that the citizens of London had been unmoved by his appeals. His blunt “They spake not a word” amused the interval-refreshed audience. In addition, he lapsed into a London accent to parody the Mayor’s explanation that “the people were used not to be spoke to but by the Recorder”.
Catesby and Buckingham made a good job of preparing the Mayor for Richard’s dramatic appearance in the high corner entrance. Richard, with two bishops at his side, read out loud from a prayer book, apparently oblivious to the assembled company.
Buckingham was excellent in his furious insistence that if Richard would not rule the country then nor would Edward’s illegitimate offspring.
Richard on the other hand was not overly melodramatic. His “Will you enforce me to a world of cares?”, said just before his final acceptance of the crown, was underplayed and not milked for its comic potential.
The Duchess, Elizabeth and Anne met outside the Tower (4.1). They were refused entry, a setback that was followed by more bad news brought by Stanley. He told Anne that she was to be crowned Richard’s queen. The role of Dorset was cut and for a strange reason the Duchess’ age was changed from the text’s 80 to a more historically accurate 70.
The coronation scene displayed some great directorial flair (4.2). The entire court gathered before the throne and knelt. The queen appeared in her new crown and took her place at the front of the obeisant assembly. Richard, now in a regal doublet and with a crown composed of black toothed spikes like an open gin trap, sat in this throne, paused, then impatiently rose and spoke with Buckingham whom he plucked out of the crowd.
The entire exchange, including the disposal of Anne, was conducted with the court still kneeling in attendance on Richard. The king lost his patience with the cold Buckingham. Catesby’s aside about the Richard gnawing his lip was cut to make this an isolated, two-handed exchange with the court still reverently on its knees.
Richard ordered Catesby to spread rumours that Anne was sick as she continued to kneel a short distance away. Her lack of reaction was either her theatrical absence from earshot or a symptom of her resigned acceptance.
The murderer Tyrrel (Christopher Bianchi again) appeared at the high corner entrance and was dispatched to kill the princes.
Buckingham claimed the dukedom of Hereford from Richard, who studiously ignored him. The performance text at this point included only the second instance of Richard saying “I am not in the vein”.
Richard received the good news that the princes had been killed, inspiring him to pursue young Elizabeth, but he then became downcast when told that forces led by Richmond were massing against him.
With no Margaret in this production, 4.4 began with Queen Elizabeth’s weeping as she imagined the princes’ souls flying up into the air.
A general problem for this sequence was that tragedy and sadness seemed difficult to evoke in such a small space, as there was greater awareness of the actors beneath the characters and it proved more difficult to believe in their grief.
The absence of Margaret meant that the incantatory argument between the women was cut, and no lesson in cursing was given, which reduced the rhetorical power of the scene. The action cut straight from Margaret’s entrance to Richard’s appearance with drummers at the high corner entrance.
The Duchess, making up for Margaret’s absence, expressed an extremely forceful wish to have strangled Richard in her own womb. Matching her in emotion, Elizabeth shrieked “Where are my children?” in a particularly disturbing way.
The drums sounded briefly then fell silent to allow Richard to explain that he would “thus… drown your exclamations”. He was not really bothered by this challenge, a nonchalance reinforced by his high position relative to the women.
After hearing his mother’s final bitter words, Richard tried to persuade Elizabeth to gain her daughter’s consent to marry him. She, like Anne, had no texture to her anger. It was all on one high note, a slight weakness in the performance.
There was sarcasm in her suggestion that he should send her daughter, young Elizabeth, a “pair of bleeding hearts” engraved with the names of her dead brother princes. But Richard was confident in dealing with a woman he considered his inferior. There was no flicker of weakness that might have made him more interesting at this point. He was, if anything, too perfectly assured of himself.
The only hint of extreme emotion came when he threatened that without his proposed marriage to young Elizabeth the land would fall prey to “death, desolation, ruin and decay”.
But it was clear, even after he kissed her, that he would not be getting his own way. Perhaps Richard’s comical misogyny reinforced this impression.
The king made preparations for battle. He dispatched Catesby, turned round to address Ratcliffe, then after a while swivelled at the waist to look back at Catesby and ask him why he had not departed. This was the first indication of his increasing lack of attention.
Richard’s accusations of treachery against Stanley were mild and measured. He hit a messenger and then, realising he had been brought good news, gave the man his purse.
The mixture of favourable and unfavourable news meant that pressure was increasing on Richard, but he was not yet in inescapable peril.
After a brief scene in which we heard that Queen Elizabeth wanted Richmond to marry her daughter (4.5), we saw Buckingham being led off to the execution block (5.1).
Our first look at Richmond (Jack Bannell again) showed him to be a potent presence (5.2), which was a necessary counterbalance to Richard’s energy. In order to believe in Richmond’s eventual victory, he had to be at least as charismatic a figure as his opponent.
The strain began to show as Richard prepared for the battle at Bosworth (5.3). He became very impatient with the setting of his tent. The second time he gave the order “Up with the tent!” he shouted angrily.
The appearances by Richard and Richmond within the scene were rearranged so that there was no rapid swapping between them. The two split sequences for each character were united into one continuous sequence.
This meant that Richard fell asleep on his mattress at one corner of the space, accompanied by slumbering soldiers, their heads bowed, collected around three of the stage pillars. Richmond then made his preparations before going to sleep on his mattress in the opposite corner.
The dream sequence began as Richard awoke to find his legs and arms completely healthy. He examined their straightness and stood upright, a transformation that indicated that he was now in a dream world.
Then in a magical, masterful stroke, one of the soldiers raised his head, took off his cloak and showed himself to be the ghost of Henry VI, played by the same actor (Andrew Macbean) who had represented the dead king’s body on the pallet.
Other soldiers rose from their sleep, their faces lit in an eerie blue light, and revealed themselves to be Clarence, Rivers, Grey, Hastings, Anne (dressed in white) and Buckingham.
Possibly to prevent the boy actors from being up too late at night, The Duchess appeared in lieu of the princes, which to make sense only required one word to be changed: “Let us them be lead within thy bosom”.
The ghosts did not address any blessings to Richmond, who continued to slumber in the other corner.
Richard woke from his dream, but his lengthy reaction to it was too rushed and lacked depth. There was scope here for a more detailed examination of the twists in his conscience provoked by the visions of his victims.
Richmond awoke and mentioned that he had been visited by the ghosts and that they had urged him on to victory. This was a satisfactory treatment for those familiar with the play who could imagine the missing elements. But anyone seeing the play for the first time would have missed out on the alternation between the ghosts’ condemnations of Richard and their kind words for his opponent.
By this point the swords “hung up for monuments” had been taken down from the columns and were being deployed once again as weapons of war. Their retrieval became a neat indication of the decay of the state from peace to war.
Richmond addressed his soldiers in preparation for battle, but then Richard delivered his battle oration to us the audience, still considering us to be his confederates. Richard drooped his raised sword to the ground when he heard that Stanley and his men would not be joining him.
When we saw Richard looking lost, the famous “A horse, a horse…” was hastily delivered and not laboured over, suiting its status within the text rather than its theatrical fame, as Mackay tried not to emphasise the line (5.4).
The final fight saw Richmond, in a full suit of shiny armour and carrying a large, unwieldy halberd, swiping clumsily and ineffectually at Richard, who was armed only with a sword.
Richard deftly outmanoeuvred him and seemed set for an easy victory. But Richmond had assistance. One of his men cut Richard’s leg from behind causing him to stumble, enabling Richmond to stab him in the back. Richard lay with his feet and arms twitching in the air, as if his nervous system had gone into spasm from the blow to the spine.
There was a hint that the multiple injuries inflicted on Richard were an echo of the recent discovery of the real King Richard’s skeleton and the conclusions about the manner of his death drawn from the forensic analysis of his remains.
The bloody dog was dead, and the spiky crown was retrieved from Richard’s head by Stanley and presented to the victorious Richmond.
This was director Andrew Hilton’s second go at a Shakespeare history play. Shakespeare At The Tobacco Factory’s emerging style, hiring in a reasonably famous outsider for the lead role and surrounding him with the company’s regulars, proved an excellent model on which to base the story of an overreaching tragic figure like Richard, as the structure of the casting reflected the structure of the play.
The particular circumstances of the space and the company permitted John Mackay to deliver a very distinctive and consequently unforgettable Richard.
King Lear, Tobacco Factory, 18 February 2012
John Shrapnel propelled his Lear through this production with the wholly appropriate determination of a bullet, never yielding to the personal and impersonal forces ranged against him.
But Shrapnel’s Lear also remained likeable. This was partly because, Cordelia aside, he was surrounded by an unpleasant freak show of an extended family whose ghastliness was magnified by the Tobacco Factory’s small performance space.
A possible psychological backstory would posit that Lear’s personal tyranny had deformed those closest to him into grotesques. He seemed almost normal by comparison, because he had the knack of bending others to his will, and consequently out of all shape.
At the start of the play this Lear was old but vigorous, displaying no signs of entering his dotage.
When his family gathered to hear him speak, Lear gave Cordelia pride of place at the head of a long table. He kissed her lovingly on the head before sitting in his ornate wooden throne at the other end. Goneril and Regan sat at a distance behind Cordelia accompanied by their husbands.
Lear dispatched Gloucester to fetch France and Burgundy and, checking to make sure he had gone, set about unveiling his “darker purpose”. In the first few minutes of the play, this Lear showed himself to be a man accustomed to having things, and especially people, precisely where he wanted them.
Cordelia’s response “Nothing” to his request for praise did not register with him to begin with. It came completely unexpectedly and passed him by.
A lack of emotional involvement also seemed to characterise his long speech dismissing Cordelia from his favour. Lear was calm and collected initially, with all the fervour of Lord Sugar sacking a wannabe apprentice. It was not until he mentioned “the barbarous Scythian” that he finally exploded in rage, his heart lagging a few minutes behind his brain.
Kent’s repeated challenge of Lear’s judgment fired Lear even further. The king thumped his fist on the table and, exclaiming “recreant, on thine allegiance”, made Kent kneel before him.
Lear reaffirmed the withdrawal of Cordelia’s dowry telling Burgundy “Nothing. I have sworn”. But the emphasis he placed on “Nothing” together with the gaze he fixed on his daughter, meant that he was in effect taunting Cordelia with her own word of choice.
Despite keeping an all-licensed Fool and enjoying his company, Lear was surprised and angry when his irreverent companion placed his tattered tricorne hat on Lear’s head, identifying him as the bitter fool who had given his kingdom away. His weariness with the Fool’s jests was also revealed when he mouthed along with the punchline to the gag about making two crowns from an egg.
This energetic impatience with others and their failings was seen in moments that normally signal Lear’s decay, turning them into further indications of his strength.
“Who is it that can tell me who I am?” became for this Lear a challenge to those around him rather than an expression of his own bewilderment.
There was also no assurance or power lacking in his striking speech cursing Goneril with sterility. Cutting and unpleasant, he seemed very comfortable with this kind of invective.
In keeping with his general lack of empathy with others, there was no sense of closeness between Lear and his Fool when he confessed that he had done Cordelia wrong.
A remote symbolic union of sorts was created when Lear threw off his cloak promising to “abjure all roofs”. This gesture mirrored Edgar earlier in the scene casting his doublet to the ground to proclaim “Edgar I nothing am”.
The first signs of true disturbance in Lear’s mind only appeared after the storm, which in the Tobacco Factory space was indicated by flashes of light and thunder sound effects. Instead of breaking down under the torrential rain, it was not until he was ushered into shelter by Gloucester, and holding the mock trial of his two daughters, that Lear displayed any significant perturbation. As with his banishment of Kent, his mood only boiled over after a delay.
This meant that his normally distracted questioning of Poor Tom about whether his condition was the result of giving all to his daughters was spoken coolly and rationally. His insistence on talking to the philosopher and “learned Theban” sounded knowingly sarcastic rather than delirious.
Lear reappeared with flowers in his hair raving about mice and cheese. But he only appeared to be properly mad when he stuck his hand down his trousers to indicate the location of the burning, sulphurous pit.
His reunion with Gloucester was one of the most moving sequences in the production, displaying here much more genuine feeling than in any of his dealings with the Fool.
Lear’s characteristic strength also extended into his reunion with Cordelia. When he awoke from his sleep, his eyes flashed open in an instant. He was fully lucid and just as strong as before, as if merely opening his eyes from a brief rest.
The most remarkable display of resilience of the night saw Lear carry Cordelia onstage in a fireman’s lift. His “Howl, howl, howl” was not a desperate cry, but a repeated instruction to those around him to begin their wailing at the tragedy of Cordelia’s death. This made perfect sense of his next words, which were a complaint about them being speechless “men of stone”.
The other characters floundering in the wake of this indefatigable dynamism had become warped in the process.
Goneril (Julia Hills) was portrayed as middle-aged. Her advancing years seemed to have increased her regal pretentions and ambition to replace her father on the throne. The thwarting of this ambition had produced in her a shrill bitterness.
She was genuinely upset by the behaviour of Lear and his knights at her house. Given Lear’s domineering character, it was possible to sympathise with her position and to see her as victim rather than aggressor.
In some productions Goneril’s embrace of Edmund is staged as the culmination of a mutual attraction that is suddenly presented to the audience. Here, however, Goneril almost ambushed Edmund in desperation. She presented him with a ring, so that her instruction to him to decline his head was an unequivocal invitation to kiss.
As she smooched her beloved, something akin to shock played across Edmund’s face, which the blocking had placed in full view of the audience.
Her choice of Edmund as paramour was particularly odd. His characterisation had been deliberately engineered to have none of the swaggering bad-boy animal magnetism of many Edmunds.
On his first appearance, he held his hands nervously in front of him and seemed very self-effacing. He sat obediently and performed the function of scrivener when Lear began to speak to his family. Crouched on a low stool at the edge of the stage, with a writing table perched on his knees, he was subservient and bookish. These are traits often used to characterise Edgar.
His soliloquy about the folly of astrology included a very camp impression of an apologist for the practice that did nothing to enhance his manliness.
Even when he took on a more active role, donning a black jacket designed to make him look the part, he continued to be a fortunate opportunist rather than an unstoppable force.
Goneril was not, therefore, surrendering to his irresistible charms.
Her husband Albany was greying and dour, suggesting perhaps a sourness of the same degree and origin as his wife’s.
Regan (Dorothea Myer-Bennett) was much younger than Goneril and her busty corpulence was mirrored by the rotund, almost comical obesity of Cornwall. It came as no surprise to read that Byron Mondahl had previously played an ugly sister in pantomime, as his Cornwall here was roughly similar.
Her sly and conniving nature is indicated heavily in the text. For one, she poisons her sister. And more subtly, she replies to Lear’s reminder of what he had given her with the revealingly callous riposte “And in good time you gave it”.
The production expanded on this trait by having her flirt with Oswald to get him to hand over Goneril’s letter to Edmund. As soon as her attempt failed, her face snapped out of its false smile to reveal her inner bitterness.
At times, Regan and Goneril seemed to be badly acted. But on closer inspection what was being presented was a well-acted portrayal of a pair who had spent their lives acting badly at being dutiful daughters.
The two of them reached the apogee of their horribleness during their spat over Edmund in 5.3, which was made all the more wretched by the man’s lack of any obvious lady-killing charisma.
Edgar on the other hand, did make an incredibly powerful impression on his transformation into Poor Tom. Picking up on his reference to beggars who stick pins and nails in their arms, when Edgar first appeared in his disguise his forearms were dotted with sharp needles. Blood seeped from the tiny wounds. He inserted additional needles as he spoke, so that the pain in his voice was partly the result of these continuing self-inflicted agonies.
When Lear spoke of Poor Tom having “thus little mercy” on his flesh and of his “judicious punishment” for the assumed offence of giving all away to his daughters, his point was graphically illustrated by this gruesome self-mortification.
The strength of will that this required made Edgar seem stronger than his brother. It came as no surprise therefore that he defeated him in combat in the final scene of the play.
Eleanor Yates’s Cordelia was fair of face, white of dress, and gazed out at the world through a pair of blue eyes that seemed to bulge slightly larger than life. Even her battle dress was themed white, set off by a cream-coloured webbing belt.
It was only when Lear lay next to Cordelia’s dead body, with its trace of rope burn around the neck, and wistfully willed her back to life, that it was possible to talk in terms of this Lear being truly defeated. And shortly after that he expired.
Built around the solidity and drive of Shrapnel’s Lear, this production saw Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory once again deliver something that felt much grander than the company’s limited resources should have allowed.
They consistently punch above their weight, and to such an extent that this small, unsubsidised company is rightly bracketed alongside much larger and better funded producers.
The Comedy of Errors, Tobacco Factory Bristol, 1 April 2011
The Tobacco Factory achieved some remarkable things in their Shakespeare season this year. After wowing audiences and critics with their excellent production of Richard II, a play characterised by intensity of language as well as psychological depth, they then turned their attention to the light and frothy Comedy of Errors and made an equal success of that.
But perhaps this production’s most significant achievement was its interpolation of a devised dialogue complete with authentic Shakespearean bawdy that neither of the two broadsheet reviewers (Guardian/FT) spotted as a 21st century insertion.
The Guardian’s reviewer even praised the production for bringing out “comic nooks that more bombastic productions lose” one of which was “gorgeously laden with innuendo in every line” without realising that this particular gorgeous nook was entirely Made in Bristol.
It says something for a company’s confidence that they are able to invent their own Shakespeare and successfully pass it off with virtually no one noticing.
And this confidence was also keenly felt in the joyous atmosphere of the production, which swept the audience along in its wake.
The performance did, however, take a while to warm up. The first scene with Egeon (David Collins) explaining his story to the Duke (Paul Currier) was long, drawn out and could have benefited from the mute dramatisation of events, as some productions provide in the background, if only to provide visual interest and clarity of exposition.
Dressed in the production’s Edwardian costume, the Duke sat behind a large desk while Egeon switched between sitting and standing, his every word noted by a stern female stenographer. As an undesirable Syracusan alien, Egeon was condemned to die for setting foot in Ephesus.
The speed soon picked up in 1.2 where we saw our first Dromio swap. The two Dromios played by Richard Neale (Syracuse) and Gareth Kennerley (Ephesus) were indistinguishable and it was genuinely disconcerting to see one rapidly mistaken for the other because the confusion was also shared by the audience, momentarily depriving them of the benefit of ironic superior knowledge.
So the Dromio dispatched to look after some money apparently returned with no knowledge of it, and invited Antipholus home to dinner.
Antipholus of Syracuse’s (Dan Winter) look of fear at the end of the scene, his reference to “cozenage” and the list of charges against the people of Ephesus, all hinted that the problems to come were partly the result of his own prejudice. A calmer, less suspicious outlook on life was implied to be the nobler path.
An interpolated sequence (as mentioned above) showed an initial meeting between Antipholus of Ephesus (Matthew Thomas) and the Courtesan (Kate Kordel) in which the latter offered to give Antipholus her “ring”, in return for which she expected him to “stand to” and shower her with gold. Fnarr, fnarr!
Had this dense collection of bawdy been genuine it would have deserved a prominent position in any study of Shakespeare’s sexual innuendo. But alas, this sequence was the pure invention of the production.
The dramatisation of this teasing relationship between Antipholus of Ephesus and the Courtesan made stark sense of the following scene in which his wife Adriana, played by Dorothea Myer-Bennett, waited impatiently for him to return to dinner. She feared that he was spending time with some paramour, concluding “I know his eye doth homage otherwhere”.
Her sister Luciana (Ffion Jolly) sat on a chair looking stern and dowdy in her studious glasses and expounded her purely theoretical notions of wifely obedience to errant husbands. Meanwhile Adriana paced up and down, alive with the indignation that warranted her practical response to her husband’s absence.
Reunited with the correct Dromio instead of the Ephesian one that had invited him “home” to dinner, Antipholus of Syracuse lost his temper with his servant. But having argued intensely, they were reconciled as Dromio joked. As the atmosphere relaxed, they sat on narrow circular seats fitted around diagonally opposite pillars to enjoy Dromio’s witticisms.
The entry of Adriana and Luciana who had gone forth to find Antipholus was marked by a long speech from his very irate wife. The comic purpose behind the length of this speech became obvious as Adriana’s uninterrupted harangue drew a series of increasingly puzzled looks from the two Syracusans. The comedy was both spoken and unspoken.
Act three saw Antipholus of Ephesus and his business associates enter singing a drunken song and arrive outside his house expecting to be let in. The fantastic sequence in which they were refused entry was one of the highlights of the production.
The dramatic convention used to establish the doorway added to the hilarity. The pillars at one end of the central performance area marked off the inside of the house, while several metres away at the other end of the space the far set of pillars became the other side of the door, with insiders and outsiders separated by the entire area between.
The production renamed the character of Luce as Ginn (Holly McKinley), which was the name of the one of the maids mentioned at 3.1.31.
The unconventional staging of the doorway was exploited to underscore its absurdity. Throwing himself into his newly-found role as defender of Adriana’s household, Dromio of Syracuse knelt on the ground and talked through an imaginary gap under the door to his Ephesian counterpart at the other end of the space. In the throes of his anger he spat under the gap. And after a split-second gap, Dromio of Ephesus recoiled as if having received the contemptuous payload.
As Antipholus of Ephesus mimed knocks on the imaginary door, Michael Coveney’s Angelo knocked on a real wooden door some distance behind in time with Antipholus’ blows.
At one point this synchronisation broke down so that knocks rapped out when Antipholus was motionless, prompting anxious looks from both of them in what was obviously a staged moment of comedy.
An interpolated dumb show with music from the production’s piano and violin showed Adriana crying to herself in spotlight while Antipholus of Syracuse looked on in silence. This provided context for Luciana’s accusation at the start of the next scene that this Antipholus had “quite forgot a husband’s office”.
Why, Miss Jones…
But of course this Antipholus was not Adriana’s husband, which from our audience perspective excused his sudden interest in Luciana. He knelt before her as she sat in her chair, took her bookish glasses from her face and stroked her “golden hairs”.
Luciana’s looked mortified at these advances, partly because they marked yet another instance of what appeared to be Antipholus’ desertion of Adriana, but mostly because of her own prudish rejection of her own physicality. Her line at 3.2.53 was paced so that it became “What! Are you mad…?”
This was followed by yet another reaction to an unwanted advance, this time Dromio of Syracuse brandishing a fork as he fled from the cook, who had taken him for her love, the Dromio of Ephesus.
The hilarious anatomising of the cook in terms of countries was completed by the final question from Antipholus about the location of the “Netherlands”. Dromio’s solemn reply of “O, sir, I did not look so low” was freighted with enormous tongue-in-cheek ribaldry.
Just after the two Syracusans had vowed to flee Ephesus, the Merchant found Antipholus and presented him with the gold chain, which, in his confusion, Antipholus was too distracted to refuse. And on that note after the fifty minutes of the first half, the interval came.
The second half began with 4.1 and Doron Davidson’s imposing Merchant trying to get his money from Angelo, who in turn insisted that he was owed by Antipholus of Ephesus. The latter soon arrived with his Dromio, dispatching him to buy some rope with which Antipholus was planning to chastise his wayward household.
The audience laughed heartily at Dromio’s line “I buy a thousand pound a year. I buy a rope” despite the fact that no one actually understands precisely why it is funny. But as Frank Carson is fond of saying it’s the way you tell ‘em that counts.
Angelo became increasingly frustrated at Antipholus’ confusion over the chain, which was something he knew nothing about because the Syracusan Antipholus had received it.
As Angelo ordered the Officer (Craig Fuller) to arrest Antipholus, Dromio of Syracuse returned telling of the ship he had been ordered him to locate. Greeting Antipholus of Ephesus with this news made it look as if he had been planning to evade his debts and flee. This effect was made more obvious by the word “escape”, which is not in the text, being added to Dromio’s lines. It was noted and repeated back accusingly by Angelo as confirmation of his suspicions. Poor Dromio of Syracuse was then sent to Adriana’s house to fetch bail money.
Scene 4.2 saw Adriana prompting a distraught Luciana for details about Antipholus’ advances towards her. Her string of invective against her husband was countered by Luciana questioning why she should be concerned for such a low-life. Adriana’s reply “Ah, but I think him better than I say” was a laugh out loud moment for the audience as the comedy uncovered a moment of truth and tenderness amid the chaos and slapstick.
In this sequence Dorothea Myer-Bennett yet again showed herself to be a very talented performer with great timing and stage presence.
This was interrupted by the arrival of Dromio of Syracuse who soon departed with the money required by Antipholus of Ephesus. He ran into his real Syracusan master who had tried to disguise himself and was reading a Greek newspaper. The ensuing mutual accusations of memory loss were cut short by the entry of the Courtesan, who was greeted with threats and grimacing as if she were a devil.
Her insistence that Antipholus should dine with her and give her the promised chain extended to grabbing hold of him and pulling him away, while Dromio took hold of his master’s other arm and strained in the opposite direction.
The humour of this tug of war was topped only by the freed Antipholus drawing his sword stick and making it into a cross to fend off the Courtesan with the words “Avaunt, thou witch”. He and Dromio fled leaving the Courtesan vowing to tell Adriana about her husband’s promise.
Money for old rope
Dromio of Syracuse found Antipholus of Ephesus under arrest hid the rope he had been sent to fetch behind his back before presenting it. The rope was therefore a shock to Antipholus who had been expecting bail money.
Antipholus of Ephesus did not take this well. He beat Dromio on the back with the rope very hard. This made the audience gasp as the rope was quite solid and heavy and the blows were quite loud. Padding could have been involved but was not in evidence.
To increase the percussive power of the rope, Antipholus then made two knots in it and proceeded to test the rope by thwacking it with great force on floor. He and Dromio ended up fighting over the rope just as Adriana, Luciana, the Courtesan as well as Pinch (Jack Bannell) and his henchmen entered.
Dromio managed to wrest the rope from Antipholus and climbed up one of the pillars to suspend the rope like a hangman’s noose while telling Adriana to “respice finem, respect your end”.
In an attempt to sort out the confusion, Adriana, her husband Antipholus and his Dromio swapped notes on the day’s events but could not agree on them. Antipholus’ threats against Adriana, whom he suspected of being involved in the plot against him, was the final proof needed that he was mad: Pinch’s ominous dark-suited assistants put him in a straight-jacket.
The Officer who had first arrested him looked scared of these henchmen and nervously insisted on his right to detain Antipholus but did not sound prepared to enforce it. Dromio ended up with rope tied around his hands, and characteristically joked about being “entered in bond” for his master.
Adriana’s face was a picture of indignation when the Courtesan told her about the ring she had given to Antipholus. This was yet another of Dorothea Myer-Bennett’s memorable moments in the performance.
The Syracusans dramatically burst in with their swords drawn sending the others fleeing in panic. Antipholus’ line “I see these witches are afraid of swords” got a big laugh from the audience, not least because of the ridiculous combative postures adopted by the Syracusans as they fended off their enemies.
For act five the priory was indicated by a cross by the space’s east double doors. After starting a fight with Angelo and the Merchant, the two Syracusans were also confronted by Adriana and Luciana. Outnumbered, they ran through the double doors to take refuge in the priory.
The Abbess (Nicky Goldie) was quite short and her easy dominance of the situation was made the funnier by her diminutive stature. When questioning Adriana about the cause of her husband’s sorrow, she cited a list of possible reasons concluding with “unlawful love” and demanded to know to which one he was subject. Adriana was uncharacteristically muted when replying “To none of these… except it be the last”.
Egeon was brought in with his hands tied at the opposite end of the space behind the Duke, to whom Adriana was planning to make her entreaty.
In one of the stand-out moments of the performance, Adriana knelt before the Duke and without looking him directly in the eye, rushed at great speed through her entire speech (5.1.136-160) in a single, yet coherent, breath.
As the Duke looked on bemused, the audience lapped up the humour of her quick-fire account of her entire experience of the day and applause greeted its final gasping appeal for the release of her husband from the priory.
Grim, the maid, was the messenger that told the assembled company that Adriana’s husband and Dromio had broken loose. This news was followed shortly by the arrival of the two Ephesans. Recognising his son, Egeon tried to break free from his guard.
Antipholus also had a comic turn presenting his grievances to the Duke. But instead of a rapid-fire kneeling plea, he paced agilely from person to person, pointing an angry accusative finger at all those who had wronged him. The Duke looked baffled and the audience laughed at this second comic recap.
The Duke eventually accused everyone of being under the influence of “Circe’s cup”. But nonetheless sent someone into the priory to fetch the Abbess. Egeon tried to make himself known to the Ephesans thinking them to be the Syracusans who had grown up knowing him, but they had no memory of Egeon.
The Abbess soon returned with the Syracusans, who now for the first time confronted both their Ephesan siblings. Adriana thought she saw two husbands in a moment that was reminiscent of Olivia’s first sight of two Cesarios in Twelfth Night.
As the reunions and reconciliations took place, some of the audience, unaccustomed to the way in which coincidences pile up in Shakespeare’s comedies, thought that the Abbess’s announcement that she had gained a husband was just an old nun trying it on. The explanation a few lines later that she was in fact the long-lost Emilia soon put that matter to rest.
In a touching moment, when Antipholus of Syracuse told Luciana that he was still earnest towards her, she responded to this restatement of his affections by taking off her glasses in readiness for his advances. Previously Antipholus had removed her eyewear to admire her and she had reacted badly thinking him Adriana’s adulterous husband and pointedly replaced them.
After the Abbess and the others had departed for a reunion celebration, the two Dromios remained behind with the Ephesan eyeing his brother suspiciously from the side of the space. But he joined his Syracusan brother and they went off together hand in hand.
The production made full use of the Tobacco Factory’s empty blackness to create a great feeling of comic energy filling a completely fluid space. For the most part the performance area was filled with people with little or nothing in way of props. This provided enormous freedom of movement and intense focus on the cast.
Dorothea Myer-Bennett’s Adriana was the perhaps the most memorable performance of the night. Her comic indignation at her husband’s apparent misbehaviour was given a serious aspect by the brief mute scene in which we saw her sobbing to herself.
Andrew Hilton is now just showing off. He’s taken Shakespeare’s histories by storm with his Richard II and has now shown his mastery of a great Shakespeare comedy, augmenting it with “original” Shakespearean dialogue that has fooled critics. Good for him!
Richard II, Tobacco Factory Bristol, 5 March 2011
The Tobacco Factory’s annual double-bill of productions in their Bristol studio space had already earned them, and director Andrew Hilton, a reputation for quality.
But their first ever Shakespeare history play marked a departure into a new genre in which they had yet to prove their mettle.
Normally I delay reading reviews of productions in order to approach them with an open mind. But the glowing reports about this Richard II were unavoidable.
When I did finally venture to Bristol to see the production for myself, I was very gratified to find that the clamour was fully justified. Faced with the challenge of a Shakespeare history, the Tobacco Factory had excelled their previous accomplishments and created a remarkable piece of theatre.
Part of this success was down to the theatre space itself. A small black-walled studio on a floor of a converted tobacco factory with seating in the round, the Tobacco Factory encloses a cast of actors with minimal props in the heart of an audience. With no sweeping spaces for actors to move across, no scenery or other visual distractions, and with the cast trapped on all sides by the audience’s grand jury of inquiry, a play becomes all about individuals under pressure and the intense relations between characters.
This is an ideal space for plays in which conflicts are psychological and verbal rather than overtly bloody and martial: perfectly suited, therefore, to a play like Richard II.
A dais-mounted throne was positioned at the east end of the space just in front of the main double entrance door. The door itself was decorated with an illuminated painting of a royal scene.
At the beginning of 1.1 the space filled with nobles attending on Richard at this court. The King in his light-coloured long robe immediately cut a distinctive figure among his black-clad subjects.
John Heffernan managed to give his Richard both the air of effete self-dramatisation the character requires and also a sufficiently commanding presence to make Richard believable as an absolute monarch. There was something slightly comical in the way he gathered up the bottom of his robe like a skirt when ascending the throne to consider the dispute between Mowbray and Bullingbrooke: the original spelling was used, as was the pronunciation “Herford”.
Matthew Thomas’ Henry immediately impressed as a strong, direct presence very much in contrast to Richard. But lurking in the background of this first scene were some characters to whom attention was also drawn by some subtle direction.
Although they are not mentioned specifically in the stage directions as being present in this scene, Bushy, Bagot and Green were positioned off to the right of Richard’s throne and Bushy in particular observed the initial proceedings with a wry, smug expression on his face.
It was ironic that Richard, again combining regality with touches of camp, accused one of Bullingbrooke and Mowbray of flattering him, when it was his other flatterers that were to be his undoing.
When Bullingbrooke charged Mowbray with being the source of all the treasons in the country over the past eighteen years, the other nobles laughed at the suggestion. After this Bushy and Green conferred in whisper as if to say “Doesn’t he mean us?”
The dispute between the two nobles escalated to the point where, after mutual accusations of perfidy, Mowbray threw down his gauntlet and Bullingbrooke accepted his challenge by picking it up. Bushy went to Richard’s side and conferred with him just before Richard gave “his” decision on the dispute, that it should be resolved without bloodshed.
This neatly demonstrated the influence of his court favourites. There existed a clique who had preferential and influential access to the throne.
When Bullingbrooke refused to back down from Mowbray’s challenge, Richard was finally forced to snap at Bullingbrooke that he was “not born to sue”. This was a somewhat petulant outburst and was the first indication that Richard did not exercise absolute, unchallenged authority.
Julia Hills, who is imprinted on the public consciousness primarily for the part of Rona in the sitcom 2 point 4 Children, made a very good job of the melancholy Duchess of Gloucester in 1.2. Sat on a bench in mournful widow’s weeds and accompanied by bird song to suggest an exterior scene, she delivered very effective verse speaking.
The combatants entered in armour for 1.3 as Richard and the Queen sat high up in the south aisle to watch the lists. The text’s lances were replaced with swords, which were measured to ensure equal length.
Soon after the duel began the King threw his warder down into the arena to stop the fight before pronouncing the banishments of both Bullingbrooke and Mowbray. Of the two, Bullingbrooke initially took his banishment quite well.
After they had sworn on the King’s sword not to plot together against Richard, Bullingbrooke was mean and aggressive in his attempt to get Mowbray to confess his treasons.
Gaunt began to show his displeasure at the King’s actions in reminding Richard that he could not add years to his life, only take them away by burdening him with cares.
Aumerle and the Lord Marshall were friendly towards Bullingbrooke, but he did not respond to their overtures. This prompted the argument with Gaunt about his exile. Given an opportunity to express his unhappiness at banishment in words, he was more forthcoming than when first presented with the King’s judgment. This marked him out as being a character with still waters than run deep in contrast to Richard’s quick reaction petulance.
Criticising his father’s glib prescription to ignore the situation, he mimed holding fire in his hands to emphasise that he could not ignore the pain it would produce by thinking about the cold.
Richard spied Aumerle who froze on the spot with a guilty expression, no doubt prompted by the fear that the King might know of his sympathy for Bullingbrooke. He stumbled out his answers to Richard’s questions about Hereford’s departure.
Bullingbrooke’s courtship of the common people became the subject of Richard’s keen mockery as the King mimicked the Duke’s actions. But the King’s thoughts soon turned to the war in Ireland. He was thoughtful about financing it, deciding to “farm our royal realm”. The news of Gaunt’s sickness caused him to gather up his royal robe and scurry off to visit him.
Gaunt looked sweaty and ill at the start of act two. Wearing an unbuttoned shirt, he staggered in to sit on a chair in the north west corner of the space. The sceptred isle speech passed off without much audience reaction at its familiarity, which was gratifying.
The King and Queen entered with the latter immediately kneeling before Gaunt to comfort him. The spat between Gaunt and King saw Richard become rude and curt, cutting the old man short at the 115 half line in another display of peevishness.
Gaunt was carried off by his servants leaving Richard to comment sarcastically about Bullingbrooke’s loyalty to him. More cruel humour came when Richard heard of Gaunt’s death: he gave it a few seconds consideration before jauntily continuing “So much for that”. He was childishly excited about the planned Irish war clapping his hands together like a five-year-old going to a party.
York was fretful about his divided loyalties between the King and Bullingbrooke and criticised the seizure of Gaunt’s property. Richard was firm but visibly irritated in reaffirming his intentions.
The malcontents revealed their concerns after gingerly testing the air and Northumberland was coaxed into divulging the news of Bullingbrooke’s imminent landing at Ravenspurgh.
The Queen showed her rhetorical elegance in her finely pitched discussion with Bushy in 2.2. Her description of her sadness and Bushy’s comparison of it to a perspective image seen awry was a gentle interlude of elegant verse speaking. But the ominous foreboding of the Queen was made real by the news about Bullingbrooke brought by Green.
York’s careworn demeanour and his absent-minded description of the Queen as his sister rather than his cousin, showed that his responsibilities were taking their toll. At 111 we saw the crux of his problem: he was kinsman to both Richard and Bullingbrooke. This would be the cause of his subsequent neutrality.
The King’s favourites, Bushy, Bagot and Green looked worried when taking their leave of each other. The archaic spelling/pronunciation “Bristow” was used by Green.
Bullingbrooke and Northumberland entered through the east door for 2.3 and were met by Percy. Berkeley’s entry from the west and slightly menacing questioning undercut the expressions of support for Henry, resulting in a frosty exchange. York, as regent, came in the same side as Berkeley and was overtly angry. But the anger turned to tacit approval when York invited Henry and his party to stay at the castle.
Bullingbrooke’s reference to the “caterpillars of the commonwealth” was one of many gardening analogies in the play.
The brief scene 2.4 showed the Welsh Captain’s decision to leave the field of battle fearing that Richard was dead.
Bushy and Green were brought out through the big east doors at the start of act three. The accusation that they had caused a “divorce betwixt his queen and him” was not laden with any inference as to what it might mean.
Richard entered for 3.2 and fell flat on the ground with his arms outstretched to “greet thee, my earth”. Still prone, he tapped his fingers on the ground to “do thee favours with my royal hands”. He sat up as he continued to talk about the spiders and toads he wanted to attack Bullingbrooke. This all looked a bit weird.
Carlisle’s obscure reassurances had to be translated for Richard by Aumerle, which amused the audience.
Richard ran up the south aisle and started literally self-dramatising, figuring himself as the sun about to drive away the darkness. His ecstasy of self-importance reached a head when he paused before mentioning the glorious angels that would be fighting on his side.
But this flight of fancy was rudely brought to earth by Salisbury’s news about the desertion of the Welsh. Richard became snappy, indicating that he was about to cast his toys out of the royal perambulator.
When Scroop said that Bagot, Bushy and Green had made their peace with Bullingbrooke, Richard flew into a furious rage, kicking at the supposed turncoats as if their heads were at his feet as he dripped spittle everywhere.
With anger fully spent, he sat morosely on the ground by the south west pillar in order to tell sad stories about the death of kings. He took off his crown just before mentioning it in 160. His speech slowed right down almost to a stop as his voice quietened.
This was the stand-out moment of the entire production. It was one of those magical instances in the theatre where you can sense an entire audience leaning in close and straining to follow every word in hushed awe.
Richard held the crown in his hand and pierced through it with an invisible pin, acting out Death’s triumph over pompous monarchs.
His gloomy mood was dispersed by support from Carlisle and Aumerle. Richard replaced the crown on his head saying “Thou chid’st me well” thinking that his despondency was a passing fit. But then Scroop delivered the really bad news of York’s desertion to Bullingbrooke, causing Richard to take the crown off again and give the order for his followers to disperse. Exiting through the northeast door, he stormed off talking of going “from Richard’s night to Bullingbrooke’s fair day.” This ended the first half.
The performance restarted promptly after the interval with York in 3.3 pulling up Northumberland for not referring to Richard as King. But it seemed that this fastidiousness was just a cover to hide York’s own embarrassment and guilt at siding with Bullingbrooke.
Henry strode across the space setting out his demand for the repeal of his banishment and the bloody consequences of it being denied. His talk of “the wounds of slaughtered Englishmen” risked losing him audience sympathy, as did the menace of his intended march so that “our fair appointments may be well perused”. Henry’s ruminating on the bringing together of fire and water looked like the contemplation of bitter conflict.
Without a balcony or upper space for Richard to appear “above” the distinction between the two camps was made by separating them so that only one was onstage at a time. This worked well as the go-between Northumberland could be present in both segments and no direct conversation took place between the parties. This might have been written into the text in order to facilitate touring productions faced with similar staging difficulties.
Bullingbrooke and his party turned to face the east door, but Richard himself did not appear at this point. Henry and York looked offstage and referred to the King as if he were visible in the distance. They exited through the east door, and swiftly after Richard and his party entered through the north west door to be greeted by Henry’s messenger, Northumberland, coming back via the east door through which he had just exited. The stage now represented the castle fortified by Richard.
Defiant Richard’s reference to Bullingbrooke “for yon methinks he stands” worked well in this staging where the two parties were not initially onstage together. Richard set out his terms and Northumberland returned to Henry by exiting.
Richard was angry and overcome with feeling when telling Aumerle of his disgust at giving in to Henry’s demands. The return of Northumberland triggered another stream of self-dramatising rhetoric from Richard. In a state of heightened emotion, he contemplated his deposition with increasing gloom and self-pity.
With Richard noting at 160 that Aumerle was weeping, they hugged each other and held each other’s arms. Richard, still holding onto Aumerle, leant slightly away from him to look down and imagine his tears falling to the ground to carve them out a pair of graves. Sensing that Aumerle found this slightly funny, he turned to Northumberland and prissily asked “What says King Bullingbrooke?”
Base court blues
Northumberland’s mention of the “base court” sparked off another of Richard’s flights of associative thought in which he saw the aptness of the name.
Richard and party exited, Henry and his group entered and Richard’s group re-entered to establish the location as the base court where the two had agreed to meet. Having established that Henry was in charge they all exited for London via the north east door.
Bird song trilled to indicate the garden setting of 3.4. The Queen’s elegant musing on her woes was reminiscent of that of Richard. She and her servant hid in a corner when the gardeners entered.
The roles of Gardener and Gaunt were both played by Benjamin Whitrow. This doubling brought out the fact that both these characters used analogies from nature to provide non-nonsense descriptions of the state of the nation. The instructions the Gardener gave for the tending of the garden were a metaphorical enactment of what Gaunt would have wanted.
The Queen burst forward and the gardeners cowered, doffing their hats in what was almost a moment of comedy. The Gardener’s scale analogy prefigured that used later by Richard.
As the finger of blame was pointed at Aumerle in 4.1 for the death of Gloucester, the resulting shower of gauntlets produced some tittering in the audience. And to be fair there was something faintly ridiculous about the sight of so many gloves hitting the floor in swift succession.
But the arguments were also notable for the strictness of the verse speaking, which was tightly observed despite the rapid fury of delivery.
No sooner was the resolution of this multi-faceted conflict postponed, but York arrived with news of Richard’s decision to relinquish the crown. Bullingbrooke’s snap announcement that he intended to replace him led the ever-vigilant Carlisle to issue a strong objection, and he was promptly arrested for treason.
Richard was brought in wearing plain clothes, including a white shirt. His crown and sceptre were carried by servants behind him. His self-dramatisation had now extended to comparing himself to Christ. He looked at the audience after saying “God save the King” as if directing at us the following question “Will no man say ‘Amen’?”
Bucket up, bucket down
Richard and Bullingbrooke both held the crown, one hand on each side, during the bucket speech. This was as per the standard staging following the implication of the text. But at Richard’s “Ay, no. No, ay” he capriciously offered then immediately retracted the crown before finally handing it over fully to Henry.
The rhetoric-laden demission speech was followed by Northumberland presenting Richard with a list of charges. It was hard not to feel sympathy for Richard’s riposte that a similar charge sheet laid at the feet of his accuser would include the latter’s deposition of a king.
Richard’s crisis of identity prompted his call for a looking glass. He sat on the throne with the small, hand-held mirror and scrutinised his face. Suddenly he began punching the glass with his fist, causing it to crack. This proved the brittle nature of both the mirror and the glory once reflected when he looked in it.
This image of Richard on the throne, hunched over the mirror and engrossed in contemplation of himself was a fine visual metaphor for his tragic faults. His obsession with his reflection in a small mirror emphasised his shrunk status and was more effective than other stagings using a larger, full-length mirror.
Bullingbrooke seemed to feel sorry for Richard and his pathetic condition, picking up on the deposed monarch’s love of metaphor. His “The shadow of your sorrow hath destroyed the shadow of your face” was like a conciliatory offering or consolation prize to make Richard feel better. There was something slightly stilted about the delivery of the line as if such fancy talk was out of Bullingbrooke’s normal conversational repertory. Richard did indeed seize on it like a hungry man on food before being led out by his “conveyors”.
The Abbot’s plot, outlined towards the end of the scene, set the ball rolling for the action of act five.
At the start of act five the Queen entered with her waiting woman, soon followed by the King under guard. Describing “The truth of what we are”, Richard pointed at his simple clothes. After recoiling from the shock of their enforced separation by order of the new king, they embraced passionately and kissed as indicated in the text.
The roles of the two duchesses were doubled which meant that Julia Hills appeared again in 5.2 to play the Duchess of York. Unfortunately these two roles were not sufficiently distinct in performance and anyone unfamiliar with the play might have assumed that she was presenting the same character throughout. The near identical dress of both characters did not help.
She listened to York’s moving description of Richard’s reception in London, which was memorably depicted in the RSC’s 2007 production by showing Jonathan Slinger’s Richard having a stream of dust descend on his head.
Their son Aumerle had the seal of his secret letter just visible on his doublet. When questioned about it, Aumerle turned away but his father York followed. Enraged, York ordered his boots be brought so that he could ride to tell the king. But he did not reckon with his wife who snatched the boots away from the serving man who fetched them.
This meant that York’s last request for his boots was addressed the Duchess and not the servant. His wife’s subsequent speech questioning his intentions was spoken by her holding the boots hostage awaiting a sensible response to her interrogation.
Having taken his boots back, York set off while his Duchess planned her own pursuit.
The references to Hal at the start of 5.3 were amusing for anyone familiar with Shakespeare’s depiction of the prince in the Henry IV plays. The entry of Aumerle disturbed this jolly scene. Percy was sent out and the north east door locked to afford privacy.
York banged and shouted the other side of the door before being admitted. The situation was very serious: York presented the treasonous letter; Aumerle was rooted to the ground begging for mercy. Despite his anger, King Henry was willing to be forgiving, yet York was insistent that his son should suffer the consequences of conspiracy.
This mounting tension with family and state being torn apart was wonderfully undercut by the arrival of the Duchess and her resolute knocking on the door demanding admittance. As Henry correctly observed “Our scene is altered from a serious thing”.
The ensuing kneeling competition as Aumerle and the Duchess attempted to out-kneel York was amusing and definitely benefited from the presence of an experienced sitcom actress. King Henry was benevolent and regal yet obviously struck by the absurdity of the situation.
Pondering the plot
A neat piece of staging provided a dramatic context for 5.4. After ordering the execution of all the plotters other than Aumerle, Henry remained centre stage reading the letter setting out the traitorous plot against him. Exton and his servant entered at the side and the noble talked of Henry’s apparent desire to be rid of Richard while he was still physically (but not theatrically) present.
Showing Henry pondering this plot emphasised both his concern and his vulnerability, making Exton’s interpretation of his previous words more credible.
The cosy Tobacco Factory space meant that when Richard entered for 5.5 and addressed the audience in a quiet voice, the overall effect was one of great intimacy. In a larger space it would have been difficult to create the same feeling of closeness. As it was, Richard could moderate his voice and draw us into the world of his mind as if talking to us individually.
Having elaborated the initial problem of comparing his prison to the world, his determined expression “Yet I’ll hammer it out” evoked painful sympathy at his plight. The measured verse speaking was as delightful here as at his previous low moment.
If Richard had been an ineffectual monarch and poor tactician he proved himself here to be a master of poetic melancholy as Shakespeare endowed him with the ability to express the inner world of an isolated prisoner.
The atmosphere became chilling when he concluded that he would not be at ease until he was “eased with being nothing”. By this stage he had sat down at the table in his cell and having finished talking lay his face flat down on it with his arms outstretched at the side, mirroring the pose he had ostentatiously adopted when returning home from Ireland. This perhaps symbolised Richard embracing his new constricted home within the confines of the prison.
Music sounded offstage and his musings on time within music and Time in general led to his famous, terse aphorism: “I wasted time, and now doth Time waste me”. Sitting upright again, he used his hands and fingers to illustrate how Time had turned him into a clock marking out his own decay.
He threw a tantrum when the music maddened him, similar to that in disgust at his followers’ supposed desertion to Bullingbrooke. He was assuaged by the arrival of the Groom, but his anger flared up again when he heard how Henry had rode on his horse, Barbary.
The Keeper brought in bread and water and put it on the table, ordering the Groom to leave. When the Keeper refused to taste the food, Richard took the water and threw it in his face. The murderers, Exton and two others immediately rushed in and Richard’s final moments began.
The first murderer stabbed Richard in the abdomen causing blood to be shed. Richard took the dagger from him and stabbed him. He then turned round to face the second murderer and killed him, but as he did so Exton came up behind and plunged his dagger into his back. The dead got up during the darkness of the scene change and did not require carrying off.
The concluding scene 5.6 showed us King Henry surveying the progress of the mopping up operation to root out resistance to his rule involving a series of beheadings. Henry showed mercy to Carlisle which was about to be contrasted with Exton’s murder of the deposed King.
Exton entered accompanied by Richard’s coffin which was borne by four attendants and placed centre stage. King Henry castigated Exton for his deed, but the previous staging of Henry’s concern about plots against him gave pause for thought as to the sincerity of his disgust at the murder of Richard.
The coffin was carried out as King Henry solemnly announced his intention to begin a crusade.
This production allowed a finely detailed performance of the lead role to be scrutinised in a space that emphasises the intimate and psychological over mere spectacle.
It seemed somehow apt that a self-dramatising character like Richard could have such an attentive and proximate audience to hang on his every word. Part of the appeal of the play in this theatre was the feeling that somehow we as spectators were necessary for him every bit as much as he and his story were there for our entertainment.
We were, and this was, an audience with Richard II.
The success of the Tobacco Factory’s first history play augers well for their future ventures in this genre. Having convinced audiences and critics that this type of Shakespeare is not beyond their capacities, the rest of their history plays should at least match or even surpass this production. We just have to hope that setting the bar this high has not made a rod for their back.