Richard II, Donmar Warehouse, 30 December 2011
No wonder there was a delay in letting the audience into the auditorium. When the doors finally opened and the eager crowd was admitted, we were greeted by the sight of Eddie Redmayne sat on his throne with eyes closed, a sceptre cradled in his arm, and his palms resting on his knees.
This motionless contemplative calm was maintained throughout the entire time that the audience assembled, giving us ample opportunity to take in the wooden gothic interior set, with its two levels connected by a staircase stage left. Three upright candelabras filled the auditorium with candle smoke.
But this image of regal serenity was misleading. As the play progressed we came to see that this Richard was anything but a serene majesty. Bolingbroke, his rival, was the really cool customer.
The distinct difference between them became the central theme of the production. Other characters and themes were sidelined. The entire production pivoted around their confrontation in the deposition scene, which sparked with the energy of resolution.
As the play began, Richard stood in his long white gown and received both Bolingbroke’s and Mowbray’s vows of loyalty. A smile played across his face as he delivered his slightly sarcastic response that one of them had to be lying. This minute trace provided the first indication of his character’s dominant trait. He found being king a source of great amusement. Despite dealing with treachery, his first priority was to extract fun from the situation.
Eddie Redmayne’s Richard II was a child who had always played at being king and was now set to make childish play out of his own pitiful and inexorable downfall.
This became the main feature of Richard’s character, to the exclusion of other possible characterisations. His heterosexuality was emphasised, precluding the possibility that his camp playfulness was a product of effeminacy and thereby making it the result of immaturity.
Richard appeared on the gallery 1.3 as Bolingbroke and Mowbray prepared for trial by combat. It would have been possible here to show him surrounded by his male favourites with the Queen a distant bystander. But instead, his wife was firmly and closely by his side.
Our first proper look at the Queen herself in 2.2 showed her to be much more mature and centred than Richard. This was an odd match, but one that made her a mature foil for his childish gem.
Crucially in this respect, Bolingbroke’s capture of Bushy and Green was cut from the beginning of act three. This scene with its hint that Richard’s favourites had “made a divorce betwixt his queen and him, broke the possession of a royal bed” no longer implied sexual impropriety, again centring attention on Richard’s lack of maturity.
In 1.4 Richard hit upon the idea of the Irish war as if he had merely found a new amusement to relieve his boredom. This was suggested very subtly, without exaggeration for immediate effect. It formed just one building block in Richard’s emerging characterisation.
Later in 2.1 Richard received news of Gaunt’s death with a similar flicker of joy. But his “so much for that” remark was not played for comedy. His reception of the news was focussed but playful.
Bolingbroke with his slightly unkempt hair and rough clothes, looked the complete opposite of Richard’s soigné.
His confrontation with York in 2.3 showed Bolingbroke to be an unflappable quick thinker. When accused of treachery, his neat explanation that he was merely reclaiming what was rightfully his, showed him to be worlds apart in temperament from Richard.
If Richard’s initial meditative posture could be considered to be a formulaic and expressive pose, then he struck other similar poses throughout the production.
Shortly before the interval, when the Welsh captain dispersed his forces, Salisbury’s reference to Richard’s sun setting and star falling were followed by Richard appearing on the gallery. He turned to face the audience and slowly outstretched his hands.
Our first view of the King after the interval struck another immediate contrast with Bolingbroke. Richard arrived back in England in his blue tunic and knelt on ground to exhort the flora and fauna of England to strike at his rival.
This address to the forces of nature was another childish piece of game playing.
After Richard’s disconsolate request to his followers that they should sit on the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings, Carlisle and Aumerle got up and chided him. Each then grabbed one of his arms and helped him to his feet.
Richard stood with Carlisle and Aumerle at his side, and posed leaning forwards as if poised for onward movement as he swore to pursue Bolingbroke. The emotional support his friends provided had been given physical expression. Richard responded with an appropriately stylised reaction leaning forward like an arrow about to take flight.
Bolingbroke said on arriving outside Flint Castle in 3.3 that the meeting between himself and Richard should be like that between fire and water. This was a concept for which the audience had been carefully prepared. When it came, the deposition scene did indeed fulfil this expectation.
Richard took the crown from York and moved just to the left of the throne. Bolingbroke stood on the right and grabbed the other side when invited to do so.
As Bolingbroke’s hand made contact with the symbol of supreme power, there was a jump of political static, as if these two opposites had completed a circuit. Their conflicting energies seemed to make the crown glow red hot with a fusion reaction brought about by the conjunction of their contrasting characters.
There was a thrill of expectation and relief as England was poised on the brink of a grown-up assuming power.
As if to underscore the point further, even at this late stage Richard played a game, making the crown into the mouth of a well with imaginary, metaphorical buckets suspended below it. No wonder that Bolingbroke looked on these antics with a mixture of pity and amusement.
Richard relinquished the crown but then immediately snatched it back. Moving downstage towards the audience, he pressed it around his face and talked through it.
His anger and denial turned to overt aggression. He slapped the crown onto Bolingbroke’s head, forced the sceptre into his hand, and thrust him down onto the throne.
Despite Richard’s volatility, the soon-to-be King Henry was unfazed. As he composed himself on the throne, he gave Richard a bemused look.
Resorting to a mode of behaviour that he was powerless to cast off, Richard continued with his play. He called for the mirror, which he momentarily contemplated before petulantly smashing.
Bolingbroke rose to speak and displayed a touching and almost parental concern for his disconsolate rival. He told Richard calmly that only the shadow of his sorrow had destroyed the shadow of his face. Having watched Richard beating himself up, Bolingbroke was now trying to patch him up. Richard sensed and relished this concern.
After this crisis, the comedy of Aumerle’s plot came as welcome light relief, cleansing the emotional palate before the murder of Richard.
The audience noted the comedy in York’s remark about how an audience reacts to a good actor leaving the stage by ignoring his tedious successor. They also appreciated the way that the staging drew additional laughs when Henry wandered about the stage with the supplicant Yorks swivelling round on their knees to face him.
Richard’s contemplation of his imprisonment and subsequent murder felt like a postscript to the ritualised, dramatic downfall he had experienced in the deposition scene. The Groom was Aumerle disguised under a hood.
The grim deposit of Richard’s coffin before Henry formed the full stop at the end of the sorry tale.
Could it be, perhaps, that the current appeal of this play stems from our dissatisfaction with government by fresh-faced incompetents?