'…all hail!' to me? So Judas did to Christ..' (Revisiting Richard II, RST and Barbican, October 27th to Wednesday 8th January 2014).

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.

Further Details

http://www.rsc.org.uk/whats-on/richard-ii/

References

Storify page containing links to reviews interviews etc.

https://drjamirogers.wordpress.com/author/shakespearegoddess/

http://vickster51corner.wordpress.com/2013/10/31/yet-looks-he-like-a-king-the-public-understudy-performance-of-the-rscs-richard-ii-29th-october-2013/

http://blogs.nottingham.ac.uk/bardathon/2013/10/30/23631/

Richard II (RST, Preview performances 10th, 11th, 12th October 2013)

The Summer RST Company have left, and the barriers have appeared around the stage door. Tweeters twitter about how wonderful David Tennant’s performance is. It’s an ‘enthralling performance’, ‘just extraordinary’ and ‘mesmerising’ they say.

Richard II enters the stage and is at the centre of his court with his flatters whispering in his ear.

The casting of David Tennant was an important move in setting out Doran’s future strategy for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Tenannt’s presence on stage, and as part of the Company, signals a change in direction form Michael Boyd’s ideas around ensemble. On stage, he is supported by a very strong company, and it is interesting that David Tennant’s presence on the RST stage adds something to the reading of his character.

I saw the first three previews of the current production of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Richard II. I realise that previews are a work in progress, and that the production may have changed during the other three performances leading up to Press Night. Previews give the creative team time to try things out before the Press Night and drop anything that just isn’t working. It was clear that there was some work to be done, but I felt that there are real positives about this production, and I was really confident that what I was seeing in previews would be the basis for an excellent production.

The first thing that struck me when I walked  into the auditorium for the first preview was both the stunning set and the that the stage had been lowered. The set  looks like a hologram and is set in a cathedral that seems to go back into the depths of the theatre. It is a very innovative use of the old proscenium arch space to create the image of gothic columns. I was delighted to see that the stage used for the summer season has been replaced by a much lower stage which is much better than the chin high stage which caused some sight lines to be problematic. Indeed, the height is much more like the height in the Courtyard Theatre, and I hope the RSC keep the stage at this height. I felt the set had been designed both for the RST and the Barbican, and I think it will work so well on a proscenium arch stage as well as on the RST stage. What I really liked about the set was  the way the light reflected on  the set and changed colours, so the garden became golden. There was a little of  Greg Doran’s Hamlet set here in that the audience were mirrored in it at points which was very effective. There was an innovative use of a platform across the stage that appeared and descended at different points. As the musicians were at the sides of the dress and upper circle, both the horizontal and vertical space of the theatre was being utilised.

The pre-show is a little clumsy. On all three nights the audience was unsure how to respond. Had the play started? Could they continue to settle into their seats. Over the three nights the pre-show had been cut from about 10 minutes to five minutes.

I felt David Tennant did a great job at getting at Richard in previews and it is a performance I could see really developing during the run. When I first saw it, I wasn’t sure if the awkwardness at the start was Tennant’s nerves or because he was trying to reveal an unease in the character. In the first preview, Tennant’s clothes were dishevelled, his cross askew, and his hair (with extensions) a mess.  Tennant is very good at using his physique to play an awkwardness and there was something of that here. At times, he overstressed the RP accent which gave the sense of a person uncomfortable with the role he was inhabiting. At one point on the metal platform, with Aumerle (Oliver Rix), Tennant looked as if his shirt had got caught, but that was because he had a wire on for health and safety reasons, and this felt odd as Tennant was playing a vain king that looked at himself in he mirror often.

Tennant played the transformation from king to broken man very well and I really loved the metamorphosis into a Christ-like figure at the end of the play. What wasn’t working when I saw the production was that there felt like there was anxiety in Tennant’s performance as if it didn’t quiet connect with the audience. It was as if he lacked the confidence he demonstrated so well when he played Hamlet. Maybe this was because of  the physical closeness of the performance to the audience and that made him very conscious of the audience around him. The full house standing ovations are yet to come. I am sure they will. On the first preview some people stood, and the audience clearly enjoyed the production.

The audience gasped when the  identity of the murderer is revealed and this is a  lovely touch.

I felt that the end was marred slightly by the sack in the coffin, which I am sure they borrowed from the Titus set and will have to give back. I hope this changes and that there is a real sense of the earthly body and so this can be contrasted to the spiritual in a way that I think the production is trying to get at. Another thing that didn’t work for me was the ghost of Richard clanking across the metal bridge and supposedly having to open a  gate, when ghosts walk through gates. The effect might have been better if Richard had been revealed rather than having to walk onto the platform in full view.

In previews there were some stunning performances. I was particularly impressed with Oliver Ford Davies as the Duke of York and Oliver Rix as Aumerle. Rix really fleshed out the character and gave the production a sense that this was the story of three cousins not just Richard and Bollingbroke. I felt the scenes between Aumerle and Richard were really strong.  The stand out performance of the previews for me was Nigel Lindsay. He played a bully, Bolingbroke, who only seemed repentant in the last moments of the play.

It was great to have seen the wonderful John Heffernan as Edward II recently. Both Richard II and Edward II explore leadership and what happens when personal emotion takes over, and I felt that the RSC production achieved this well.

For me, preview viewing is very much part of the excitement of live theatre. In a first preview you just have no idea what approach will be taken. It was exciting to share the experience with other passionate theatre goers. The excitement is also about being able to go back again on future dates to see how the production has developed. I intend to do that soon.

Reviews and Previews

Storify page with reviews, interviews and blogs

Written on the Heart (The Swan Theatre)

Written on the Heart is a fantastic glimpse at an interesting period of history. There are some really engaging performances particularly from Oliver Ford Davies as Lancelot Andrews and Stephen Boxer as William Tyndale. The play explores the creation of the King James Bible and focuses on a group set up to compile it. Alongside wrangles over wording, the politics of the project are dramatised. Some of the most interesting parts are the references back to previous translations. There are some really engaging moments when characters debate over words and phrasing. At one point there’s a debate about whether ‘Thy faith has saved me rather than they faith has healed thee,’ is correct.

Written on the Heart presents a clear sense of moving forward. There’s a wider society at view, but at the same time, the play presents Andrews’ story and there is a focus how he tries to confront his past. The use of flashbacks work really well and there is a sense of a structure in the play that takes you through the events. My one criticism was that I found the play a little too long, but I learnt a lot, and enjoyed the exploration of detail which the play drew attention to. It felt very satisfying to have to listen carefully and that language was a major feature of the production.