The post contains spoilers, so if you haven’t seen this production yet and don’t want to know about some of the production’s surprises, then it is best not to read this post.
Having seen this production again in Stratford after the Previews had taken place and then at the Barbican, I have had more time to think about it and consider some of the detail in the production. The one thing that really stands out for me is how Aumerle, wonderfully captured by Oliver Rix, becomes a constant presence and draws together many of the different themes that this production explores. I wanted to use this blog post to reflect on how the production had developed during the run.
Aumerle is a watcher, a waiverer and an outsider. He is often very emotional and conflicted. He is unsure where his loyalties should lie. He is his Father’s son (Duke of York brilliantly played by Oiliver Ford Davies). In Previews, I found myself drawn to Rix’s portrayal of Aumerle. He is stunningly good looking and contrasts both with the broad brutish group that supports Bolingbroke and also with the more slender Flatterers (Bushy, Bagot and Greene) that follow Richard. Bolingbroke’s followers wear browns and rusts, whereas Richard’s followers wear greys and beiges. In contrast to these two factions, Aumerle wears a rich green cloak that is interwoven with metallic thread. His dress sets him apart from other characters. The director, Greg Doran, has talked about the way that David Tennant brings something of the contemporary to the production, and of course David Tenannt’s Richard is also a character who physically stands out from the other characters. However, Oliver Rix’s Aumerle also has a very contemporary feel. His dark styled hair feels modern, and many of his gestures seem more in keeping with current youth culture than the code of conduct in medieval England.
What is very special about Rix’s performance is the way that he has built up the non-verbal action. His response to Richard’s Flatterers in the first act is one of disgust as they applaud Richard’s witticisms. There’s clearly a rivalry between Aumerle and Bushy (Sam Marks). This is particularly evident in their entrance to John of Gaunt’s house. As Bushy and Aumerle enter, Bushy turns to Aumerle and gives him a look of utter contempt. It’s easy to miss this, because Richard’s and Isabella’s (Emma Hamilton) entrance is rather dramatic and does tend to draw attention to them.
It’s not just Richard’s Flatterers that show disdain for Aumerle. Bolingbroke’s (Nigel Lindsay) burly followers don’t want Aumerle hanging around with them either. After the death of John of Gaunt it is clear that they want Aumerle to leave and he quickly gets the message.
In early scenes, Aumerle comforts his father. He helps him up when York is clearly upset at the death of his brother Gaunt, but this relationship quickly changes. After the scene on the gantry at Flint Castle, York moves to embrace Aumerle, who responds by grabbing his father’s cloak and gives the impression that he wants to throttle him. Both father and son swap sides. York shifts allegiances very quickly, but always reluctantly, from Richard to Bolingbroke, at the same time Aumerle’s allegiances move to Richard.
As the Stratford run was drawing to a close, I had a conversation with Dr Jami Rogers who suggested that there were lots of hints in the production that suggested that Aumerle would become the murderer at the end. She mentioned the Judas kiss on the battlements of Flint Castle as an example. This made me think a little more about Aumerle’s role in this production. I started to watch with fresh eyes. Once the seeds have been planted, then this production becomes a Who-will-do-it, as much as it is a Whodunit. The ‘who killed Gloucester plot’ that runs through the production, is a clever piece of business, and what it does is constantly remind us that Edward’s heirs are not safe. The knowledge that Gloucester has been murdered also plants the possibility of regicide in the audience’s minds.
The key change in the production is that the character of Exton has been cut and Aumerle becomes Richard’s murderer. David Tennant said in the question and answer session after the performance on 8th January that this change made more sense of Aumerle’s character, and I agree totally with this observation.
In this production, the ending becomes a very satisfying ending and this is why.
Aumerle is troubled when Richard banishes Bolingbroke and he embraces Bolingbroke before his banishment. Indeed, he supports Bolingbroke on his way to his banishment. The sweet that Richard puts into Aumerle’s mouth silences him, as does the kiss on the gantry at Flint Castle. There are other places where Aumerle could speak and is silenced. At the very start of the performance, I am very unsure if Aumerle will also step forward and challenge Mowbray (Antony Byrne), but Richard’s entrance stops him doing so, and of course protocol does as well. During the ‘death of kings’ scene, I have seen Aumerle signal to Carlisle not to speak, and stays silent himself at certain points. Whilst Aumerle’s mother pleads for his life, he shows his annoyance at his father’s interventions through his gestures and facial expressions. Indeed, it is in his non-speaking moments that Aumerle is actually a very strong presence on stage. His expressions and gestures clearly convey his conflicted position and relationships with other characters.
In some performances, at Flint Castle, Bolingbroke looks directly at Aumerle as if questioning him and his loyalty. Just prior to this, Aumerle has just demonstrated his allegiance to Richard on the gantry, and the kiss and embrace between them can be read as a personal human moment. The kiss can also be interpreted as the Judas kiss that Jami talked about. Indeed, in the deposition scene Richard directs the word Judas from the following lines directly at Aumerle.
In thy heart-blood, though being all too base. To stain the temper of my knightly …. Did they not sometime cry, ‘All hail!’ to me? So Judas did to Christ: but he, in twelve, Found truth in all but one; I, in twelve thou- sand, none. God save the king ! (4.1.165).
The use of mirrors is very important in Richard II. Greg Doran’s production cleverly sets up pieces of stage business that are mirrored later on in the performance. An obvious example of this is when Bagot (Jake Mann) brings Richard (David Tennant) the mirror it is to emphasise Richard’s vanity and his role as a Flatterer. Later in the deposition scene, it is Bagot who brings the mirror to Richard this time emphasising Richard’s fragility and demonstrating the transience of the support that Bagot had given Richard when he was King. Richard clearly recognises Bagot, and through the repetition of the earlier mirror moment, the betrayal is amplified. However, in both the mirror scenes, Aumerle is also an observer.
The image of the coffin on stage at the start of the performance is a wonderful precursor to the coffin dragged on stage by Aumerle at the end of the production. The production begins with a pre-show and the coffin of the Duke of Gloucester on stage. The Duchess of Gloucester (Jane Lapotaire) kneels weeping at the side of the coffin. One of the final images of the production is Richard’s coffin placed on the stage in the same spot where Gloucester’s coffin was and a kneeling Duke of York beside the coffin is reminiscent of the earlier pose taken at the start by the Duchess of Gloucester. This final image is overlaid by a strange image of the ghost of Richard, Christ-like in a white gown standing on the gantry. This image is a reminder of the white that Richard wore for his entrance at the start of the play. In the early scenes, Bolingbroke is banished and the production concludes with the banishment of Richard’s other cousin, Aumerle.
Vicster51corner has written a very interesting blog about the understudy performance in Stratford Upon Avon, where Oliver Rix performed the part of Richard II. It makes sense for Rix to understudy Richard. Bolingbroke offers an opposition to Richard, and Rix’s Aumerle offers a distorted reflected image of both. As I said in my Preview post, this is the story of three cousins, and the production as a whole works because of the strong sensible cast where Rix’s performance is central.