“Yet looks he like a King.” The Public Understudy Performance of the RSC’s Richard II – 29th October 2013
Oliver Rix – King for an afternoon!
Part of the ethos of the Royal Shakespeare Company is that it is an ensemble company; everyone works together for the good of the production as a whole and nothing displays this more clearly than the role of the understudy at the RSC. Almost everyone in the company of any production is expected to understudy another role, which I can only imagine must be a huge amount of additional commitment. However this effort is rewarded by the staging of the public understudy performance – for one show only, the public gets to see an alternative performance – the same staging, costumes, music and actors, but everyone is playing their understudy role (or roles in some cases!). The RSC’s support of the understudy run is to be commended. It is only right that the efforts of the actors to learn other roles for the benefit of the ensemble as a whole are celebrated and the fact that this is done so publicly is another reason I admire and support the RSC.
On Tuesday afternoon it was the turn of the company of Richard II to take to the stage to perform the understudy performance to an almost packed RST. I have only ever been to one previous understudy run (for 2010’s King Lear) and I was very excited to see the production done a little differently, particularly once I knew the superb Oliver Rix was playing Richard (more on that later). It was also lovely to see the remaining cast, who were not taking part, settling in to their seats to support their fellow actors. Oliver Ford Davies and Jane Lapotaire were seated behind me, with Michael Pennington across the aisle. I also spotted David Tennant, who must have sneaked in after the lights went down (although he must have changed seats for the second half).
As for the performance itself, it was simply superb. Edmund Wiseman told us afterwards that they had had only 12 hours of rehearsal time to pull the 3 hour show together and everyone involved should be very proud indeed. There were a couple of very minor stumbles over words, but other than that it was spot on and the overall result was a performance brimming with an energy all its own that you couldn’t help but be excited about.
This performance was the younger, feistier sibling of the main production, in large part due to the predominantly younger cast. The ages of most characters therefore felt much less, setting this as a youthful Court of a young, cocky King Richard and it was very interesting to see different choices made for characters and a change of emphasis on certain lines. This highlighted one of my favourite aspects of Shakespeare on stage – each production and each actor can bring something new to the play and make you think about the text in new and exciting ways and there were certainly moments yesterday afternoon that did so for me, which I’ve tried to highlight in this review. I would say this is rather longer than my other reviews, but since this was a one off performance that I know not many people were able to see, I wanted to try and include as much as I could.
First of all, I have to say that Oliver Rix (thankfully without any form of wig!) was absolutely superb as King Richard. I had been unable to see him in the 2011 season at the RSC and as his interpretation of Aumerle had already stood out for me in the main production, I was very excited to see how he would tackle the title role. I was not disappointed. Oliver’s Richard was a youthful, cocky King. He begins as a young man, who is almost playing at being a monarch and who arrogantly thinks he can do anything he pleases in a Court populated with youthful supporters who bend to his every whim. However Oliver’s immense skill as an actor meant that his Richard soon became a scared little boy, for whom I did have sympathy.
There were a number of wonderful moments in his portrayal that were very different from David Tennant’s and were exciting to see. This wasn’t an imitation of someone else – this was Oliver’s Richard and I for one liked it very much indeed!
From the beginning of the play, the complicity of Richard in Mowbray’s actions felt very real and apparent. The gestures and interplay between Oliver Rix and Jake Mann were very effective in conveying two men very much complicit in the murder of Gloucester. There was also a very clever pause by Oliver Rix in Act 1 Scene 1, on the lines “Were he my brother, nay, our kingdom’s heir, / as he is but my father’s brother’s son.” David Tennant delivers this in a dismissive way about Bolingbroke – he is only his father’s brother’s son. Whether deliberate or not, Oliver paused at a different moment, instead pausing after “as he is” which worked brilliantly in acting as a portent of the events to come, when Bolingbroke does indeed become his heir.
I thought the scene with Jim Hooper’s John of Gaunt before Gaunt’s death was fantastic, with both actors delivering strong performances. Jim’s “sceptred isle” speech was given with all the passion and emotion you want from the scene and his anger towards the King was very good. I also loved Oliver’s choices for the King’s reaction to Gaunt’s death, sitting in the chair the older man has just left, looking distinctly unimpressed and much put out by his Uncle York’s grief and that he has to comfort him. His delivery of “so much for that” was, in the same vein as Tennant, delivered in a comedic way that is very effective. Oliver’s choice of response to York’s pleadings not to seize what is rightfully Bolingbroke’s was very good as well, particularly his reaction to “Is not his heir a well-deserving son?” at which point he smirked and made a noise as if to say “Well I’m not so sure about that.”
However, this cocky self-assured King was swiftly replaced by the frightened young man who finds himself with few friends on his arrival back from Ireland. His anger towards Bushy, Bagot & Greene’s supposed treachery was delivered full force, to be replaced with horror on discovering their ultimate fate and his delivery of the beautiful speech about the death of Kings was stunning in its emotional impact. The word sorrow during “Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth” was spoken as if the word itself was a breath, blown out across the sea. His reflective tone during the rest of the speech was wonderful, before Oliver reduced Richard to a small frightened boy, sobbing at how he has been mistook and himself needs friends, before collapsing on his side, weeping in sorrow, to be comforted by Joshua Richards’s Carlisle. I was surprised at just how moving I found the scene to be and it highlighted again what an emerging talent Oliver Rix is.
The other key scene for Richard has to be the deposition scene and I thought the cast conveyed the variety of emotions brilliantly. Oliver chose to address more lines to the audience during the scene, turning to us when musing over how the men of the Court had once praised him, choosing to turn to the others on stage to deliver “Found truth in all but one; I, in twelve thousand, none” – fixing his stare pointedly at Aumerle on the word none. This King was also much angrier here, especially towards his Uncle York, whose tears visibly anger him (when compared to David Tennant, who chooses to convey Richard’s feelings here in a more subtle way). The biggest difference here though is how Oliver’s King chooses to play the moment he challenges his cousin to seize the crown. I love the way David Tennant does this in the main production, treating Bolingbroke as if he is a dog playing a game of fetch, and I thought Oliver’s choice, although different was just as powerful. Instead of holding the crown out for his cousin, he raised it in the air and placed it upon his head with his back to Bolingbroke before challenging him to seize it. Edmund Wiseman then proceeded to move to take it from off his head, only for the King to move his head away defiantly at the last moment. The effect was fantastic.
Edmund Wiseman was excellent as Bolingbroke and commanded the stage convincingly in his scenes. Stepping up from his usual role as Harry Percy, he has clearly learnt from the superb Nigel Lindsay and delivered an incredibly strong, powerful Bolingbroke, which was very much needed to stand toe to toe with Oliver’s strong King. Unlike Tennant & Lindsay, who are physically already very different, Edmund and Oliver played the relationship between the two more on an equal footing and had a fantastic chemistry. It would indeed be interesting to see Edmund set against Tennant’s Richard. One moment I particularly liked was the first scene, where Edmund and Jake Mann as Mowbray chose to stand nose to nose at one point whilst accusing each other, which worked well with younger actors in the roles.
Keith Osborn’s York was very different from Oliver Ford Davies’ interpretation. His Duke is less of a doddering man, carrying more of a sense of control and authority. Indeed it seems almost reasonable that Richard would leave his kingdom in his Uncle’s hands. This also, in my opinion, made him far less likeable, as his betrayal of the King seems much worse than when you see the conflicted weaker York as played by Oliver Ford Davies. I very much liked his reaction to Aumerle’s treason and you genuinely believed that this was a father whom he should fear.
Gracy Goldman did a great job covering three roles – the Duchess of Gloucester, Bagot and the Duchess of York. I found her Gloucester to be much more understated in her grief. She was restrained but just as powerful. Her Duchess of York was also good, although it would be very difficult to beat the brilliant comic double act of Oliver Ford Davies and Marty Cruickshank (who appeared as the Queen’s lady in waiting). Miranda Nolan played the Queen well, although perhaps not with as much emotional depth as Emma Hamilton (understandable with only 12 hours rehearsal!) . I did however really like her scenes and interaction with Oliver’s Richard and it certainly felt to me that they had a more genuine connection than between Tennant’s King and his Queen (although I think the fact Tennant is a far more feminine Richard may explain part of this for me).
I also thought Elliot Barnes-Worrell (in his debut season for the RSC) was fantastic as Bushy and Harry Percy. I very much enjoyed his playful portrayal of Bushy and thought his interplay with Emma Hamilton’s Greene worked very well. It was also lovely to see more of Antony Byrne, who disappears all too quickly as Mowbray in the main run, and who on Tuesday became Salisbury and the gardener. Sam Marks was a very good Aumerle, although, without the rehearsal time to enhance it, I didn’t think his relationship with Oliver Rix’s Richard was as strong as it could be given time.
I felt privileged to be able to see this one off performance. To be able to produce such a brilliant performance with only 12 hours rehearsal is a testament to the actors and the assistant director (who has responsibility for the understudy run) and Owen Horsley received a well-deserved round of applause at the end after being brought on to the stage by Greg Doran. The afternoon very much highlighted the importance of the role of understudy at the RSC as well as confirming further that there are clearly some stars of the future continuing to grow and learn there, none more so than both Edmund Wiseman and the superb Oliver Rix. I would have gladly paid full price to see it and would happily have returned to see it again if it were possible.
I would definitely recommend a trip to one the RSC understudy performances in the future, especially if you have already seen the main run. It is a brilliant way to see another interpretation of the play and witness talented actors grow, and for only £5 (or £2.50 for members/supporters) it really is a bargain. It was well worth the trip from London for me and no one should worry – if David Tennant or any of the principal cast need a night off, the production will be in very safe hands!