A game of thrones: RSC’s Richard II – Live in Cinemas

It will come as no surprise to many that I am quite the fan of Shakespeare. I’m also quite the fan of David Tennant, both as the Doctor and out of it. So when the Royal Shakespeare Company announced plans to broadcast their production of Richard II, I leapt at the chance. While there is no substitute for sitting in a darkened theatre with 1500 others, seeing it in a cinema with two dozen others is perhaps the next best thing.
The first play in Shakespeare’s History cycle, Richard II dramatizes the last months of the monarch’s reign, from 1398 – 1399, and begins, historically speaking at least, at “one minute to midnight.” Grounded in a very medieval world of godliness and saintliness, righteousness and morality, Shakespeare’s play is not to be mistaken for ‘capital-H’ history; while they are relatively faithful in terms of the progression of their events, Shakespeare’s History plays are instead dramatic analogies for the socio-political climate of Elizabethan England (dealing with issues of succession, rebellion, and wise counsel) and are structured in a way, reminiscent of medieval mystery plays with their clear-cut vices and villains, heroes and everymen.

Enter, then, Gregory Doran’s production. Staged in the cavernous Royal Shakespeare Theatre with its prominent thrust stage (the same theatre that housed David Tennant’s Hamlet for the RSC in 2008), Doran – with his design team of Stephen Brimson Lewis (set and costumes), Tim Mitchell (lighting), Paul Englishby (music) and Martin Slavin (sound) – created a recognisably medieval world that capably filled the theatre’s expanse as well as the cinema screen. Using simple light images projected onto a serious of metal-beaded curtains, Mitchell and Brimson Lewis created cathedral-like spaces that skewed perspective and gave the stage an added depth and scale that could not normally have been achieved through traditional set pieces and conventional lighting techniques. With simple changes in lighting – from moons and thorny burrs, to gardens and subterranean dungeons – Richard II’s ever changing series of locations and moods were effectively captured; when combined with Brimson Lewis’ simple pieces of set – a gantry lowered from the flies, two staircases that emerged from the wings; a throne and simple gold poles – the medieval and saintly world of Richard’s England was brought to life on stage and screen.  There was a strong use of colour, too – strong blues and golds, greens, burgundies, browns – all drawn from the medieval paintings of the time, and Paul Englishby’s music, performed live by a trio of sopranos, trumpeters, and a percussionist (available on CD from the RSC), completed the illusion, giving Shakespeare’s words an architectural grandeur and sense of scale.
As Richard II, David Tennant was mesmerising as ever, and his innate ability to make Shakespeare’s language sound completely and utterly new was on prominent display. With his long hair and heavily embroidered gowns and robes, he looked every inch of the saintly king of Shakespeare’s play. As with his turn as Hamlet, and indeed any of his performances, one of the main features is his warmth and humour, his humanness. When Richard, sitting on the ground of the beach, freshly landed from a disastrous campaign in Ireland, says
For you have but mistook me all this while:
I live with bread like you, feel want,
Taste grief, need friends: subjected thus,
How can you say to me, I am a king? [III.2]
we really do believe him. This speech, the ‘Game of Kings’ speech, is a key moment in the development of Richard’s character as in the play as a larger piece. It marks the moment when he realises that he is in fact mortal, and that his lands and kingdom may as well be Bolingbroke’s. Frequently taken out of context, as so many of Shakespeare’s ‘Big Speeches’ are, what is particularly noticeable about it when delivered in the context of the scene, is how despairing it is, how poignant and pregnant with the weight of mortality it is. The same can be said of John of Gaunt’s ‘Sceptred Isle’ speech in II.1 – when taken out of context, it becomes a paean of an idyllic Arcadia, a hymn to England’s countryside, becomes instead a cynical and ironic taunt at Richard and his divine conception of himself as a saint-like figure. As delivered by Michael Pennington, this speech is angry, too, vehemently so, and takes on yet another edge, that of an old (and dying) man railing against the “dying of the light,” to quote Dylan Thomas. The rest of the cast were all quite strong, and the private moments between Aumerle (Oliver Rix) and Richard particularly moving.
Not wanting to disparage or undermine the rest of the cast, the rhythm of Doran’s production appeared to waver when Tennant was not on stage. While I don’t think it was his status as the production’s drawcard or star that was necessarily to blame for it, I think it was partly the language and the way it was delivered. Richard II is a poetic play, in terms of images as well as its language; it is written entirely in verse. Often described as verbal music, Shakespeare’s language is particularly lyrical and evocative here, not to mention formal and rather medieval in its tone and form. Concerning itself with the knife-edge of a monarch’s divinity and mortality, it is also a lament for the end of chivalry. On top of this, Shakespeare – in dealing with war, rebellion and the issue succession and deposition – sets Richard and Bolingbroke (who became Henry IV) up as mirror images of each other. Where Richard is ultimately an emotional character who soliloquises, a kind of proto-Hamlet if you will, Bolingbroke is very much a man of action (a distinction which is beautifully illustrated in Paul Englishby’s music).
While ultimately a tremendously lavish production, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Richard II does exist on an enviable scale that is rarely matched in Australia. Large at twenty-three, the cast size is something we can rarely achieve in Australia, once a generation or so (Sydney Theatre Company’s The Secret River is the only local production to have matched this size recently.) Along with its mechanised set and lighting rig (another dream for Australian theatre geeks like myself), its sheer scale is mesmerising (and more than a little enviable). While the Royal Shakespeare Company is a dream in terms of employment and opportunities for artists, not to mention a continual and evolving celebration of the Bard’s work, there is the tantalising opportunity to see more of their work locally in the coming years, albeit broadcast in cinemas.
While ultimately a tragedy, in which “a powerful figure falls from an earthly prosperity, and in doing so, rises to a greatness of soul,” Richard II asks the question ‘what do we do when we elevate people too high?’ Perhaps, as Kenneth Lonergan wrote in his play This Is Our Youth, “chivalry isn’t [really] dead; it just smells funny.”

Theatre playlist: 38. Bolingbroke, Paul Englishby

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