All entries for Saturday 04 August 2007
August 04, 2007
The disappointment is crushing. It was perhaps too much to hope that every play in the Histories Cycle would be a cracker, but after five excellent productions (even Richard III, which I wasn’t too fussed about at the time, has left a positive impression on me), Michael Boyd has finally dropped the ball.
That said, if it wasn’t for the fact that the rest of the cycle has been so good, I might not have cared. This isn’t a bad production, merely a very disappointing one which has missed its potential. Let down by a couple of key performances and, most crucially, missing the humour which goes a long way towards making this one of Shakespeare’s most accomplished pieces of work, it is the first of the Histories Cycle that has felt like a chore to sit through.
It is in large part due to the cast. No one member of the cast is in any more than seven plays, and for many of my favourite performers this is the show they miss- Jonathan Slinger, Forbes Masson, Katy Stephens, Chuk Iwuji, James Tucker, Richard Cordery and Nicholas Asbury are all on the reserves bench for this production. This is partly compensated for by the welcome return of Julius D’Silva, absent in Richard II but back now as Bardolph in a very funny performance, including a headlong dive from the balcony on his first appearance and a pitiful attempt at rope-climbing prior to the Gadshill robbery. He’s an excellent performer who has provided wonderful turns all through the cycle, and he clearly revels in his Cockney drunkard.
Where the play suffered was in its leads. David Warner’s Falstaff, much-hyped, is an odd piece of casting, Warner clearly a tall thin man wearing a fatsuit. He brings gravitas and a wonderful facility with language to the role, but he simply isn’t funny. What laughs there were were either entirely at Shakespeare’s words or else at bits of ‘business’- for instance, Falstaff donning a pair of false glasses and moustache as a disguise. Warner himself, however, was distinctly unfunny in the role, instead being listless and far less important to the story than he should by rights be. His intrusions onto the stage were more of an annoyance than a relief, and he threw away some of the best lines, particularly in his famous catechism on honour.
He wasn’t helped by Geoffrey Streatfeild’s Hal. The oiliness and slick smoothness that made his Suffolk such an enjoyable and slimy villain in Henry VI was unwisely retained here. Streatfeild’s Hal was a smooth and humourless operator who, most bizarrely, never seemed to have the remotest liking or affection for Falstaff. From the moment they woke up in bed together to Hal’s evident disgust, to the battlefield where, of all things, he almost gloated at Falstaff’s dead body, there was never any doubt in the audience’s mind that this was a prince who was killing time in the tavern and was more than ready to take his place at the court. Falstaff was not a father figure, but an annoyance, someone he had to put up with while he had a drink, more like the lecherous old man in the pub who you end up talking to against your will. The only person Hal seemed to have any affection for was Poins, played by Kieran Hill, who did at least bring an energy and comedy to the tavern scenes. Every scene was played seriously, even the play extempore, where Hal seemed more angry than amused. His “I do; I will” was no surprise and not even a change in tone. Streatfeild is a good actor, and I can only hope that the next two productions justify his Hal, as here he was utterly unlikable in a way that left me uninterested in his rise. The interview between he and his father was excellent, really giving Hal the opportunity to realise his faults- and yet, the scenes earlier were so serious that we already knew the outcome. There is no redemption if the subject does not need to be redeemed.
The bright light was provided by Lex Shrapnel’s Hotspur. Shrapnel provided an energetic and thoroughly enjoyable performance, ranging from blustering to intimate in his scenes with Kate. Here was a hero we could engage with, and his death at Hal’s hands was a blow to the audience, particularly as the simultaneous stabbing of Falstaff (with fake blood flying across the stage) distracted from the actual moment.
The play was best in its small moments. Maureen Beattie provided a decent Scottish Mistress Quickly, Hal and his father shared some intimate moments on the battlefield and Prince John was set up nicely as a figure to watch. The battle scenes were well done, and the pistol showdown between Walter Blunt and the Douglas was particularly well done. However, the play as a whole became tiresome. The tavern scenes were not funny, and the serious scenes were too inconsistent. The result was a mess, with the feel of a production that hadn’t settled into itself yet. This was also the first play in which ghosts played no significant role (a real shame, as the ghost of Richard II would have had a great deal to do here), and few of the clever links that have characterised Boyd’s cycle so far. Coming so soon after the decent Richard II , this production was a crying shame.
Finally, I understand Boyd’s vision that there are no ‘good’ characters in this history, as everyone commits crimes. But this Hal simply needed a good, hard kick in the head- and if I’m going to be feeling that for the remainder of the character’s life, then I have to admit I’m slightly dreading the next two plays. I don’t want to like him, I just want to be able to watch him. Richard Twyman, the associate director, takes lead directing duties for Part II, and hopefully he’ll be able to get the cycle back on track.
With the Complete Works Festival now long over, and the Swan preparing to shut down in a couple of weeks, the RSC’s attention now seems focussed on its new Big Project. The Histories Cycle is Michael Boyd’s attempt to stage with a single company the two tetralogies of history plays that Shakespeare wrote. The Cycle opened in the Complete Works with revivals of his award-winning Henry VI and Richard III productions, and now we begin the second part of the journey, with brand new stagings of Richard II and Henry IV , with Henry V due to follow in the autumn.
Richard II sees Jonathan Slinger play his second Richard of the cycle, having already wowed critics as the crookback Richard III. He couldn’t be more different here from his gruesome villain, dressed in Elizabethan robes and ruffs with a whitened face and a general campness. He is, unsurprisingly, the centre of this production, which sees the Histories company on restrained but solid form.
As ever, Boyd’s feel for casting and rewriting throws up fascinating parallels. Chief among these is his reinvention of Bagot, played by Forbes Masson, Richard III’s King Edward. Here, Bagot (the one survivor of Richard’s companions) becomes Richard’s murderer, trying to find his place in the new regime by killing his old companion, leading to a moving death scene as Richard recognised his old friend as he fell to the floor.
The other main innovation of this production was the introduction of the ghost of Gloucester, recently murdered and haunting Richard, here unquestionably Gloucester’s killer, in the guise of various messengers and servants. Chuk Iwuji played the dead man in a nice reference to Henry VI Part III where Slinger’s Richard of Gloucester killed Iwuji’s Henry VI, and wandered the stage with staring eyes, relishing the bad news he continually bore to the king, particularly upon Richard’s return from Ireland. His presence throughout the play was a constant reminder of the crime committed by Richard that ultimately wrought his downfall, it being partly responsible for the quarrel leading to Bolingbroke’s banishment.
Where the previous four plays in the cycle had worked hard at creating spectacle, Richard II relied on the quality of its acting. Slinger gave an exceptional performance, particularly in the deposition scene where his despair and depression combined with a reckless lack of care, in no moment so powerful as the violent handing over of the crown. Lex Shrapnel also stood out as a testy Hotspur, promising interesting things for the play to follow, and it was pleasing to see Rob Carroll and Luke Neal, both of whom appeared in last year’s Antony & Cleopatra company, back at the RSC and clearly relishing their roles. Katy Stephens also stood out as Gloucester’s widow, reappearing after her death as one of Isobel’s maid with the sole line, “I could cry”.
The gardeners brought welcome relief, with the dead Gloucester and John of Gaunt appearing with shears, lawnmower and weedkiller and proceeding to soak the audience. Visual highlights included Bagot’s descending grand piano, on which he first appeared to accompany Queen Isobel as she danced, and returned later wearing a mask to provide the music Richard listened to in prison, as a prelude to his murder. The most striking image though, echoing the flood of red and white flowers that once drowned Henry VI, was a downpour of sand, engulfing Richard and Isobel at the end of the deposition scene and providing a sense of cleansing and change, marking the final approach of his doom.
This production was a welcome change of tone, the most poetic of the history plays giving the actors a chance to relish the language and the slower pace. This was Slinger’s show, however, and his Richard was excellent- instantly provoking dislike, but later arousing our pity, and mixing threat, playfulness and a childlike sensibility to great effect. He has dominated the history plays to date by being cast as both Richards, and it will be good in the remaining plays to see other actors take the central spot, but he is clearly a star, and Richard II is his finest role to date.