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June 30, 2012

The Hollow Crown: Richard II @ BBC HD

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The most exciting element of the BBC's Shakespeare Unlocked is off to a storming start. Rupert Goold's film of Richard II, divorced of the gimmickry and attention deficit lack of focus that characterises his stage work (sometimes to wonderful effect, sometimes disastrously) is a slick, subtle, well acted and creative adaptation of a rarely filmed play that manages the tricky feat of providing something that will be of use to educators for years to come, while also matching perfectly the BBC's current aesthetic requirements for big budget primetime period drama.

Initially, the film looks as if it has borrowed its sets and costume from Merlin, but while it never quite shakes its studio feel in the bulk of the interior scenes (it simply looks a little too clean), the misty exteriors and stunning use of beach locations give this film a sense of breadth, if not scale - the gesture towards a Welsh army is a welcome visual flourish, but these lanscapes are otherwise sparsely populated. The kinetic camerawork, however, keeps attention throughout, and visually this is a varied feast, with Goold digging into his bag of cinematic tricks (flashbacks, slow motion, montage) to fit a wordy play to a fast medium.

With that said, this is a traditional looking film, aiming (with the exception of the BBC's now-standard colour-blind casting) for period accuracy, including the retention of faintly ridiculous medieval hats. The advantage of the setting is that it creates plausible settings for scenes that might otherwise be hard to imagine, such as the temporary lists set up in a field for Mowbray and Bolingbroke's duel, or the narrow corridors down which Richard makes his descent, the camera spinning dizzyingly as it evokes Hitchcock's Vertigo.

Ben Whishaw in the title role is excellent. Softly spoken and high-pitched, Whishaw's Richard is a gentle king, with undertones (never made explicit) of homosexuality in his lingering touches of male servants in his tent. His extravagances are manifest - a monkey cackles in the temporary tent set up behind the Coventry lists, and he rides to his final arraignment on a miniature pony. He goes through numerous costume changes throughout the film, his pale pinks and yellows contrasting with Bolingbroke's dark robes. Yet while this Richard is in love with ritual and ceremony, he is frequently out of control; such as the moment in which he pulls Aumerle aside atop the battlements to ask if he has done the right thing, or in his flashes of panic immediately before he halts the opening duel. There is power in him, demonstrated particularly as he shows unexpected prowess against a murderer in his final scene.

Richard is strongest in his uncertainty. The lengthy beach scene, played against a gorgeous Welsh backdrop, gives full weight to a range of characters including Tom Goodman-Hill's wearied bearer of bad news and Tom Hughes's painfully young Aumerle, who are led by Richard even in his weakness, drooping alongside him as he sits in the sand. Richard veers from euphoria to rage in an instant, casting Aumerle into the waves on hearing of York's treachery only seconds after laughing in careless confidence. We get to see less of him in his happy state, but the impression is one of peace; he sits with his retainers, swinging his legs from a country bridge; and after Gaunt's death, carelessly fingers golden goblets even as York rails at him. Yet he is equally fabulous in his darker moments, as when he stands in golden armour on the battlements in the deposition scene flanked by outlines of angels.

Opposed to him is Rory Kinnear as Bolingbroke, supported by the gruff and deliciously cold David Morrissey as Northumberland (Hotspur is one of the casualties necessary in order to ensure a 2 hours 20 minutes running time). Kinnear's conflicted, measured antihero is compelling throughout, whether glaring at James Purefoy's grizzled Mowbray, standing at the back of the invading crowd looking up at Richard or sobbing as he grabbed a handful of sand before marching into the waves to the ship that would carry him to banishment. His attempts to retain control during Richard's tour de force performance in the arraignment scene (including lying full-length on the floor) will bear multiple rewatched, as king and soldier conflict with cousin and subject in one face. Later, flashbacks of their intimacy continue to haunt him.

I very much feel the series has missed a trick, however, by not cross-casting the roles that continue into the next film. While I'm sure Jeremy Irons and Alun Armstrong will do fantastic jobs as Henry IV and Northumberland, a little grey make-up to Kinnear and Morrissey would surely have done the required work, and I would have loved to see them continue their subtle explorations of the characters. And it would have been an interesting connection to see Hotspur introduced here before stepping up to a major role in the next film.

The other performances are too numerous to discuss in detail, but the quality is consistent throughout. I was particularly moved by David Bradley's brief appearance - practically a cameo - as the Gardener. While the Northern accent perhaps unnecessarily suggests an attempt at comic relief, what stands out in Bradley's performance is the haunted look in his eyes as he kneels before the Queen in a carefully topiaried garden and sets her world crumbling about her; in one brief gaze of the camera, we see a synecdoche of the entire human cost of the play's political shifts. And unsurprisingly, Patrick Stewart is outstanding as Gaunt. The "This sceptr'd isle" speech is performed in close-up, Stewart's forehead clammy with sweat and his shirt opened. Weak in body but powerful in voice, Gaunt offers a genuine threat to Richard, a threat acknowledged by the King as he grabs the dying man's lapels and hoists him up in rage. Next to these, David Suchet's York makes less of an impact, but steadies the film throughout, a voice of at least partial integrity.

My one complaint about the film is that it perhaps takes itself slightly too seriously, particularly in the final betrayal subplot which is played po-faced, losing the inherent comedy of the conflict between the Yorks, and much of the sardonic humour that can be found in the earlier interactions between Richard and his favourites. I confess that, instead, I found the beheadings of Bushy and Green - their heads plunging straight into a river from the bloodied stumps left behind on the bridge - funnier than they were presumably intended to be, the gore contrasting wildly with the cleanness elsewhere. This is compensated for, however, by the intelligent decision to expand Aumerle's role. Aumerle is approached with the offer of money and status in a tavern, and subsequently joins the murder party who come to Richard. Whishaw languishes in a dank cave, and it is Aumerle who, while Richard struggles with a goon, fires the crossbow that transfixes his former liege. Bolingbroke's bitterness towards the young man who drags in the coffin completes the scene played ten minutes earlier when Aumerle is granted his reprieve.

Only right at the end does the director make his presence strongly felt. Nobles arrive spilling bags of bloodied heads over the the floor, and the camera cuts to Bolingbroke's face, sweating as he stammers out thanks. Lucian Msamati's Carlisle is thrown to the floor, bloodied and barely able to see out of one eye. And when Richard's coffin is broken open, he is naked except for a loincloth, arms spread as far from the body as the coffin will allow and legs bent together to one side in the traditional crucifixion pose (made unnecessarily explicit by a slow pan up to a hanging crucifix in the eaves). Invited here to reflect on the necessity of Richard's sacrifice, the audience is left with the impression of sympathy for Richard, even as we reflect on the loss of control that Bolingbroke is already experiencing; a fitting platform to move on to 1 Henry IV.

Interestingly, Derek Jacobi's documentary on the play which started immediately after this broadcast, started with the same speech as Goold's film "Let us sit upon the ground". This is, apparently, the play of reflection, and despair. Realised wonderfully here, Goold has reclaimed the play as a modern and fascinating one, which Jacobi pursued in his choice of images of Berlusconi, Hussain and Gaddafi. Jacobi's documentary (until it got to the De Vere rubbish) was also the best yet of the series in terms of its use of performance history and archives; hopefully, the pairings of new films and documentaries are going to keep providing the richest material. It's a wonderful contribution to the season, and roll on 1 Henry IV.

February 18, 2011

Richard II (SAATF) @ The Tobacco Factory

Even though Richard II stands alone as a wonderful, lyrical play, there's something about a good production that leaves you wanting more, in the form of Henry IV. Certainly the play seems to aim at that. Some of the most exciting moments in Andrew Hilton's new production, opening this year's season at the Tobacco Factory, were those hinting towards the future - Matthew Thomas's young Henry IV harumphing at the distant antics of his son; the deliciously brooding Henry Percy (Jack Bannell) kneeling before his new king and pleading allegiance; Richard's warning to John Cording's Northumberland about future ruptures in the alliance. All the main players of the next chapter were political, guarded and threatening; and it's a real shame that we won't get to see them come into their own in the next chapter.

Hilton is expert at creating strong character dynamics, and his political court for Richard II was no exception. Performed in the round, in the intimate low-ceilinged space of the Tobacco Factory's upper room, audience attention was allowed to flit between the locus of power - a high throne at one end of the room - and the reactions of the courtiers, who stood about in groups. On the accusation against Mowbray of Gloucester's death, for example, Richard Neale's bearded Bagot urgently took David Collins's Bushy by the shoulder and whispered in his ear, a clear hint that these men knew more than they were letting on. Cording's Northumberland, with wry smile and firm eyes, watched his companions closely throughout, playing the assorted nobles for everything he could; while Roland Oliver's grizzled York looked sadly at the destruction of the old order. In this formal and tightly-controlled court, human pain could often only be seen in the eyes.

This was also where some of the problems of this well-spoken but conservative production crept in. In focussing on the subtleties, the company left too much unsaid. This was particularly an issue in the case of Bagot, Bushy and Gareth Kennerley's Green. While there were one or two hints of the sycophants' delinquency - a better cut of cloth for their jerkins, a couple of whispered asides - they were played almost entirely as servants loyal to Richard. While it is true that recent productions have gone too far in playing up their lasciviousness, their homosexuality and their treachery, Hilton's production gave no convincing justification for the animosity of the older lords towards the younger generation. Obedient and supportive of Richard, they had no apparent agency of their own; and the only time their characters particularly came through was in their defiance of their execution, delivered in a spirit of righteous nobility. So often a force of action in the play, here Richard's three favourites seemed almost superfluous.

This was also apparent in their relationship with John Heffernan's Richard. He showed no particular interest in them other than the occasional address of inappropriate remarks (particularly those immediately following Gaunt's death); and was far more emotionally invested in Aumerle and Bullingbrooke. The production seemed further concerned to emphasise Richard's heterosexuality, having him repeatedly take his Queen's hand and kiss her passionately (though not hugely effectively) during his progress to prison. Ffion Jolly was rather disappointing in the role, flat and uninteresting, but was ably supported by Kate Kordel's watchful Maid. The women's scenes, like those with the favourites, felt largely superfluous - the Queen's reaction to the Gardeners (played entirely straight, although with a mournful face when the Queen cursed their labour) had few ramifications beyond her own distress, and for the remainder of the play she was a mousy, unobtrusive presence, to the point where Richard's passionate kiss seemed inappropriate and uncharacteristic.

Those were the production's weaknesses, but they were perhaps inevitable in a reading that prioritised the ritual and formal ceremony of the medieval court. Played in period costume, Hilton's company indulged fully in the trappings of the court, particularly in the long preparations for the duel between Bullingbrooke and Paul Currier's Mowbray. In full chain mail, they received broadswords from the Marshal and Aumerle, and went through a series of displays of obsequience before Richard, sat on a high chair among the audience. They got as far as a first swing before Richard interrupted the ceremony, which deteriorated into a whispered emergency committee meeting.

Where the production lacked in emotion and characterisation, it made up for in spades with dignity. Currier, doubling Mowbray and Carlisle, brought a finely-nuanced delivery to both roles, warning ominously and almost weeping as the solitary Carlisle, surrounded by shocked nobles and causing Henry to pause with the crown halfway to his head. Benjamin Whitrow was a similarly impressive Gaunt, delivering his "sceptred isle" speech from a feeble body but with a commanding presence that rendered his words transcendental. The weight given to words characterised the whole production, with characters seemingly conscious of the significance of their actions in the annals of history. This was certainly the case with Paul Brendan's Piers of Exton, who carefully considered and passed on what he believed were Henry's wishes with a pleasure in the thought of his future fame. As these characters - Mowbray, Gaunt, Carlisle, Exton - were slowly disappointed in their hopes and expectations, one was close enough to see the loss of faith in their faces as they raised their eyes pleadingly to their king.

At the centre of all this was Heffernan as Richard. Tall and slim, he cut an elegant figure among the stockier lords. While not effete, his open manner and willingness to smile set him apart from the formal deference of his inferiors - at one point, the entire court were prostrated uncomfortably for several minutes before Richard noticed, laughed and waved casually to them to straighten up. Heffernan cleverly used the formality of the court as an extension of his own character, moving smoothly through the neatly ordered groups in clear command of their organisation, as if determined by him himself. Whether during the lists or standing on the battlements (here shown simply by a different quality of lighting at one end of the stage), he used the shapes of people and his own position to articulate a stance of power or submission that always served to keep attention on himself.

The greatest strengths of Heffernan's performance, though, were in the quieter moments, accentuated by the intimacy of the theatre. The arrival from Ireland was a masterclass in the management of emotional projection, moving gradually from Richard's joyful spreadeagling of himself on the floor to kiss English soil to a growing depression and despair. He slumped against a pillar, murmuring his sorrow almost inaudibly, as if all his energy had been drained by the news; and his companions knelt to share in his grief. Playing the scene very carefully, we followed the contours of his grief. Aumerle bolstered his spiritswith thoughts of York to a point where Richard was able to finally pull himself together and resume a confident smile; but Scroop's subsequent news of York's defection shattered him entirely. Oliver Millingham's Aumerle was, throughout, a pillar of emotional support for the King. During the battlements scene, Richard's desperation threatened to spill out of control as he barked down his offer of resignation with tears in his eyes. As Aumerle comforted him, Richard turned and took him by the head, and the two remained with heads bowed in a position of intimate support for some time. The strength of this connection made up for the weakness in the other favourites; the relationship with Aumerle bordered on the transgressive, and added a great deal to Richard's character.

The dynamic between Richard and Bullingbrooke was also interesting. This Bullingbrooke was confident but not manipulative, an honourable man whose ambition only became apparent after Richard had already offered to abdicate. After Richard's descent to the castle courtyard, Bullingbrooke knelt freely before Richard and continued a physical language of deference throughout. The abdication scene itself was powerfully realised by an indecisive and active Richard, now refusing to play by the rules of ceremony he had himself established. Henry and Northumberland (pleasingly scornful throughout) reacted with restrained impatience as Richard offered then refused to let go of his crown; and Henry himself let go in order to allow Richard's monologue to run its course. Richard ascended his throne with the mirror, which he smashed several times with his fist in order to make the point. Later, in prison, he addressed the audience directly and pleadingly, looking for reason in his confinement. It was in Heffernan's performance that the production found his heart, and he was never less than captivating.

Aside from Richard, however, the production was straight and tended towards the monotonous, relieved by some strong performances and occasional moments where the tone was altered. The Gardeners provided a variation of accent; the Groom (Roddy Peters) provided a moment of honest simplicity which touched Richard during his confinement; and the interlude with the Yorks provided some laughs, though was more significant for bringing into conflict Henry and Aumerle. In a lovely moment, after forgiving the transgressor, Henry snarled at him while departing; this was no magnanimous forgiveness, but a promise of future control. The pace of the production rose noticably towards the end, and Richard's death happened in a kinetic whirl, his body falling to the floor covered in blood. In one of the few neatly inventive touches, he hurled the offered cup of wine into the face of the Keeper, who betrayed the fact it was poisoned as he furiously tried to prevent any going in his own mouth.

Austere and finely spoken, Hilton's production read Richard II as a chamber piece, a solemn and ceremonial recital given heart by a wonderful central performance. While it would have been nice to see a more inventive approach, the company found the play's power in the language and choreographed group scenes, and left its audience wanting more.

February 29, 2008

Richard II @ The Courtyard Theatre: Highlights

It’s Friday morning, I’m nine hours into the cycle, haven’t been to bed before 1.30am for two nights and so far I’m having a great time! In the spirit of my tiredness, though, I think I’ll take a far more informal approach to the blog than usual…

  • Richard II was a fabulous start to the week, a mannered production with some astonishing performances. Chief among these was, of course, Jonathan Slinger in the title role. His vocal range, plunging in seconds from a gentle high camp voice to a resounding bass, was captivating, and gave a real sense of Richard’s power, his way of manipulating people. More than most other Shakespearean productions I’ve ever been to, I really enjoyed listening to this production- the verse speaking was beautiful throughout. Watching Slinger remove his wig and make-up and then step away from the throne, moving his arms as he cast away his rule, was breathtaking.
  • The play ran just under three hours long, which means it has speeded up a great deal since I last saw it. Symptomatic of the improvements in pace was the early joust between Mowbray and Bolingbroke, with saddles being lowered from the ceiling and the combatants being raised in the air and swung back, ready to charge. The build-up to this was handled excellently, with a palpable tension rising in the audience. Surely… surely not? They won’t, will they?
  • Hannah Barrie impressed as Isabel, particularly during her parting scene with Richard where her tears seemed genuine as she joined him beneath the pouring sand that the commons threw on his head. I liked the way that Barrie only gradually let the woman behind the make-up be seen. The whole production, starting with a formal processional dance, saw the rituals of the Elizabethan court being slowly broken down to the bleak roughness of Bolingbroke’s new regime.
  • I watched Bagot’s story more closely this time, enjoying Forbes Masson’s performance immensely. The conflation of characters to create new narratives is one of the most interesting aspects of the cycle, and watching Bagot lose faith in his friend over the three hours, from sycophantic flattering through the moment of realisation as Richard recognised his killer until the final terrifying cackle as he dragged in the coffin, made for a very interesting journey.
  • Ghosts MEANT something in this production. Chuk Iwuji is always watchable, and he gave a rivetting performance as the ghost of Gloucester, interacting with the rest of the characters almost solely as a bearer of bad news. Sharing the garden scene with Roger Watkins (a very good Gaunt, who spoke a moving “This sceptr’d isle” speech and attacked his king with an admirable fervour) gave the very funny scene an edge, contributed to by the reappearance of Gloucester’s newly-dead wife (Katy Stephens) as one of Isobel’s maid. The moment that the ghosts of husband and wife shared at the end of the scene, a secret smile that took pleasure in the spreading of ill news to the Queen, transcended the moment and provided the first glimpse into the hellish parallel world of spirits that haunt England’s history. The reappearance of Gloucester and Gaunt for the murder of the King yet again echoed this.
  • Clive Wood brought a lot of strength to the role of Bolingbroke. It was his steadiness that made him threatening, particularly in comparison to the constantly wavering Richard. His black-clothed presence moved relentlessly through the play, and even sitting on a stool his authority as King seemed already settled.
  • I found myself laughing more than I expected! Maureen Beattie’s impassioned performance as the Duchess of York, pleading on behalf of her son, provided a good deal of humour while recognising the seriousness of the situation. I liked James Tucker’s Aumerle too, whose loyalty to his king provided a nice contrast to his father, played with gravity and a little bluster by Richard Cordery. The gauntlet-throwing scene, indulged in with plenty of gusto by Tucker, Luke Neal, Rob Carroll, Antony Shuster and Lex Shrapnel was also funny in its ridiculous tally of accusations and counter-accusations and the growing pile of gloves that littered the floor.
  • Keith Bartlett and Lex Shrapnel provide one of the octology’s clearest through lines, repeatedly playing a Father and Son pair. Their performances as Northumberland and Hotspur, while far less prominent here than they would come to be, were memorable nonetheless. Bartlett exuded a gravity and power that made Richard’s fears of him (the ladder by which others ascend the throne) understandable, while Shrapnel found a fresh and quite modern quality in Hotspur, a directness that meant his plain speaking cut through the rhetoric of others. This Hotspur was someone we could identify with, someone we recognised, an aspect which made his character both humourous and likeable but didn’t take away from his dangerous potential.
  • Lastly, for this blog, Sandy Neilson’s Bishop of Carlisle stuck out in my memory. His calm dignity throughout, even not kneeling with Richard as he despaired of events on returning from Ireland, had a quiet power to it, and prepared nicely for his key scene as he exposed the court for what they were.

It was good first time round, and it was faster, funnier and more powerful this time. Slinger’s performance was the undoubted highlight, but the whole company produced stirling work. A great start!

August 04, 2007

Richard II @ The Courtyard Theatre

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.

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Peter Kirwan is Teaching Associate in Shakespeare and Early Modern Drama at the University of Nottingham and a reviewer of Shakespearean theatre for several academic journals.

The Bardathon is his experimental review blog, covering productions of (or based on) all early modern plays. The aim is to combine immediate reactions with the detail and analysis of the academic review.

Theatre criticism always needs more voices. Please comment with your own views and contributions!

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