Play Report: Richard II

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Your Humble Blogger was fortunate enough to catch Richard II at BAM last week, part of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s King and Country season. What a lovely production. I have almost nothing to complain about. Really, it was wonderful.

David Tennant played Richard, and was very, very good. Very moving, very clear. Very funny, in places. There were two moments that will really stick with me—that is to say, that I think will be difficult to put aside to allow for other interpretations. The first is Richard’s sudden silliness in the deposition scene (IV,i) The exchange:

RICHARD: To do what service am I sent for hither?
YORK: To do that office of thine own goodwill which tired majesty did make thee offer: The resignation of thy state and crown to Henry Bolingbroke.
RICHARD: Give me the crown. Here, cousin, seize the crown. Here, cousin. On this side my hand, on that side thine.

It’s one of those bits Shakespeare serves up to an actor, little bits of repetition and distraction to interpret as you will. Is the second Here, cousin said after he takes hold of one side and Richard holds the other, thus Here, cousin. On this side my hand…? Or does it indicate a pause, some reluctance on the part of Henry that makes Richard repeat the offer? That’s how I’ve usually seen it played. Here, watch the Fiona Shaw version: the exchange above starts at 1:49.

We can feel the pause, as nobody trusts that Richard has really just handed over the crown. There is a definite moment where he (or rather, Fiona Shaw) has completed the thought: Seize the crown. And then when Henry does not immediately seize it, Richard barely whispers the second Here, cousin, as a nudge—Ms. Shaw is setting up a desperate grab for the crown a couple of lines later. A lovely, tense interpretation, with more than a hint of madness.

I can’t locate a clip on-line of the Derek Jacobi, but he runs the second Here, cousin together with the first, barely giving Henry a chance to respond. He crosses to Henry with the crown on the line, as if to indicate how close here is. A valid interpretation! His Richard is quick, angry, bitter, serious. Still, perhaps, hopeful. In the Hollow Crown version, Ben Wishaw’s Richard smiles through his tears at Rory Kinnear’s suspicious Henry. He says the second Here, cousin gently, placatingly. He is a beaten man, bewildered, ruined, frankly pathetic. Totally different Richards, totally different interpretations, totally different line readings.

The production I saw last week has a clip on-line from their season at home; the exchange starts at 1:29:

It was not quite exactly like that when I saw it in Brooklyn, but close. The slow examination of the crown, then the long arm thrust out to center stage, and the mocking, haughty, contemptuous imperative: Seize the crown. And then that pause. So long, so uncomfortable. Our Henry (a different actor) did not so obviously phumpherate in the throne, but they were all discomfited. This Richard was not broken, did not accept his fate, and while he would, eventually, weep, he would certainly not weep in front of Henry Bolingbroke. He would demonstrate his superiority—a touch of Fiona Shaw’s Richard, there—even as he capitulates. And then: Heeeeee-eeeeee-eeeere, cousin. In our production (in my memory, anyway) it was even more drawn out, more mocking, more obviously like calling a dog to heel. Even less a surrender. It was funny! And a bit scary. And a bit sad. And wonderful. Drawing out the tension, snapping it, drawing it out again. An inventive moment, out of two repeated words of text. Lovely.

The other moment involves the Duke of York; if you watched that exchange above, you might have recognized the actor as that guy from that thing, who was also in that other thing. It’s Oliver Ford Davies, and he was wonderful in Richard II. I forgot how good a part York is—in many ways, R2 is a family play, where all the main characters are closely related, and York becomes the pivot around which the family turns.

I’ll go back a bit. Edward III had eight sons. Three of them died in infancy; we don’t need to worry about them. We’ll also skip Lionel, the second-oldest, who lived long enough to have a daughter whose descendants take over the royal house later, but who died during Edward III’s reign and whose house wasn’t a factor in England at the moment in question. The oldest son was Black Prince Edward: he was E3’s heir but also died before the King; his son is crowned Richard II as a boy. The other three sons become the King’s uncles—they’re beneath the boy king in rank but above him in power and dignity. As Richard grows up, this will cause trouble, yes? Before curtain, the youngest, Gloucester, has attempted to seize power (or perhaps regain control over the now-no-longer-a-child-king Richard) and been defeated and killed. It is unclear who had backed Gloucester against the king, or who murdered him at the (probable) behest of the king, which atmosphere of mistrust is an important part of the background. Gaunt is the oldest: it’s his son, Henry, who deposes Richard. York is the middle one. He is the middliest middle that ever middled. After Gaunt dies, he’s the last one of his generation, the connection not just to the king’s father but to the king’s grandfather, the previous king. York avoids Gloucester’s failed rebellion and distances himself from both Richard and Henry, and manages to somehow survive the transition, even as his son does the opposite, careening between sides at the worst times for each, betraying both and ingratiating himself with neither. You can play York in different ways—his sympathy for and anger with Richard is in the text, but its sincerity is up for question.

Oliver Ford Davies turned it into a mini-tragedy of its own. An aged man, uncomfortable with the young men who must lead the country, used to authority but without political power, sharp enough to see disaster coming but without resources to avert it. And tired. So tired.

The moment of his that really stuck with me was from II,iii, when the rebel army comes to Berkeley Castle, where York, who is for the moment Regent in England whilst Richard is in Ireland, is undefended. York chastises Henry and calls him a traitor, then agrees that Richard has wronged him, and finally, grudgingly, surrenders. It ends with this speech:

Well, well. I see the issue of these arms. I cannot mend it, I must needs confess, because my power is weak and all ill-left. But if I could, by Him that gave me life, I would attach you all and make you stoop unto the sovereign mercy of the King. But since I cannot, be it known unto you I do remain as neuter. So fare you well—unless you please to enter in the castle and there repose you for this night.

There are so many shifts in this short speech. You could play York as a foxy old trimmer, trying this and that way to ingratiate himself with both sides and make enemies of neither. I would probably think to play him like that. But having seen Mr. Ford Davies’ exhausted noble, I’d be tempted to try to imitate him. His impotent baffled rage at a world going to pot is tragic, and then he tops that with really funny line readings and business. So: after his declaration of neutrality, he wants to wash his hands of the business and fare you well. The rebel lords, however, stand in his way. Silently. Hands on hilts. And he pauses, and thinks, and hangs his head and sighs. Then, slumped, he waves them into his redoubt with weary acquiescence and heavy sarcasm: Unless you please to enter… It was funny, and sad, and lovely—and even better, it clarified what was going on. Not just neutral, he has been neutered. All he can do is draw their (and our) attention to the simulation of graciousness with which he capitulates.

I could go on. With praise, not complaint, which says something, for YHB.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

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