An audience with Richard II

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.

Royal scene

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.

Melancholy

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.

Sceptred

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.

Caterpillars

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.

Interval

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.

Another duchess

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.

Clock watching

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.

Conclusions

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.

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