So, tonight (Tuesday night) saw me once again at the Barbican in London for another performance of the RSC’s Richard II (yes, I may have a slight addiction, but I love this ensemble and this production). It was another superb show, by an ensemble that is only getting better and better every day. It’s such a shame there are now only three performances left in London.
However, tonight’s audience was also treated to a post-show Q&A session on the Barbican stage. You can never predict who will stay for these talkbacks, but we were truly spoilt tonight with the cast members who generously stayed on to take part. Not only did King Richard himself, David Tennant, appear, but also Shakespeare master Oliver Ford Davies (York), Jane Lapotaire (Duchess of Gloucester), Julian Glover (Gaunt), Simon Thorp (Salisbury) and Leigh Quinn (the Queen), moderated by assistant director Owen Horsley.
I’ve tried to capture the questions and answers as best I can in this post, to give those unable to be there a glimpse in to the interesting insights and thoughts the cast shared with us.
1. How David Tennant plays the deposition scene
The first question was to Mr. Tennant and concerned his acting choices during the deposition scene, which varies in small, subtle ways almost every performance. He was asked whether he knows what he will do each time and whether the other actors know what he will do, or if he changes it to unnerve them. David talked about seeing this scene as Richard’s last display of grandeur, as it’s the last time he can screw with the court. He said he enjoyed the opportunity to play Richard’s mischievousness with the other characters here.
2. Liars in Richard II and the opening scene
Another audience member highlighted the numerous times cast members exclaim that they are speaking the truth and another is the liar and asked who is really lying and who isn’t? This led to a very interesting exploration of the context to the start of the play. Oliver Ford Davies spoke about how it is believed that Bolingbroke chose to accuse Mowbray of a treasonous act, based on a comment he had made and that Richard saw this as a perfect way to try and get rid of them both!
The cast then went on to discuss the beginning of the production, which is different from the text, in terms of having Gloucester’s murder the focal point of the opening, around which this duel of words between Bolingbroke and Mowbray takes place. Julian Glover said it was what he loved most about this production, as it makes clear, unlike other productions (including one he was in playing Gaunt at the Vic), that Gloucester has been murdered. Jane Lapotaire was asked if she wanted to say anything about her husband and she quipped “it was a great funeral!” and spoke of how everything at that point is at sea. She also joked about them banging on the coffin (something which I always find incredibly powerful in its lack of respect) and praised Greg Doran for always focusing on the text.
3. Playing Gaunt and the Duchess of Gloucester
Julian Glover and Jane Lapotaire were asked what it was like to play two incredibly important and interesting characters, but to have so little time on stage. Jane jokingly said it’s always nice to get back to her dressing room, but that the role is wonderful and feels like that of a real leading lady. She commented how it was hard on the tear ducts! She also spoke about the Duchess’s background, in that her sister actually married Bolingbroke and that she is now buried in Westminster Abbey. Julian also spoke of the last production of Richard II he was in, which cut the Duchess/Gaunt scene as it didn’t seem relevant because there wasn’t the same clarity about the circumstances of Gloucester’s death and yet to him that scene is crucial.
Julian Glover also spoke about the pressure of having possibly the second most famous speech in Shakespeare! He has played Gaunt before, but spoke of how wonderful he thought this production was and that he was only sorry he couldn’t be part of the wider venture of all four plays in the cycle. He explained to the audience that he knows a lot about Gaunt and has always found Shakespeare’s interpretation of him to be exactly like Gaunt at the age of 23. He said how much he admires Gaunt and the way he conducts himself. He also jokingly said that he gets lots of reading done during the production!
Oliver Ford Davies commented that he played Gaunt in repertory theatre in Birmingham, where he also played Salisbury and the groom, with slightly differently pitched voices for each role!
4. Staging the play in Stratford-Upon-Avon and London
The cast were also asked about performing the play on the two different stages in Stratford-Upon-Avon (on the thrust stage) and here at the Barbican (on the more traditional proscenium arch staging).
Simon Thorp said that they were very different spaces and that across the cast people have different preferences, but that he loved both. He praised the acoustics at the Barbican, although he did say that the lack of toilets backstage is not ideal! He also spoke about them losing the “voms” (the entry/exit walkways off the stage in Stratford), which allows them to do great entrances and exits.
David Tennant’s view was that different plays work better in different spaces. His personal view is that Richard II works better on the proscenium stage of the Barbican, due to the scope and size of the story. Visually he thinks it is better suited for this type of widescreen-style stage. However, he preferred performing Hamlet in Stratford-Upon-Avon on the thrust stage of The Courtyard Theatre, as that play required him to address the audience throughout and engage with them in a more direct way.
Jane Lapotaire and Julian Glover had an entertaining exchange on this topic, as Jane thinks it’s harder to work the Barbican stage, which she also thinks is too much like an American stage, being too long and narrow. Julian on the other hand isn’t a fan of stages where you can’t always see the actor’s face, with only a view of their back, which inevitably happens on a thrust stage. Jane jokingly shot back with the comment that it’s possible to act with your back!
5. Differences from the 2013/2014 run
Another member of the audience said how she thought this production was more comical than the previous run and asked whether this was a deliberate change. The actors seemed surprised by this (which I admit I was too). For me, it’s not a more comical version, but the humorous moments are perhaps slightly different this time, with more coming, in my view, from Jasper Britton. Reference was specifically made to the joke Bolingbroke plays on Harry Percy on first meeting him, which it was said was Matthew Needham (Harry Percy)’s idea. David Tennant suggested that perhaps the more familiar you are with a text, the braver you get with it, which he thought may be happening now.
Oliver Ford Davies thought that the comic scene with the Yorks towards the end of the play is an example of Shakespeare experimenting with adding comedy just before tragedy. He doesn’t think writers today would be brave enough to try something like that. Jane Lapotaire said that humour in his plays before tragedy is used often, referring to the scene in Antony & Cleopatra in which the clown brings Cleopatra a basket of figs, just before she kills herself as an example. She spoke of Shakespeare’s skill at allowing the audience to let off steam before the final blow takes place.
6. The history of Richard and Aumerle
Of particular interest to me was a question which asked what is the history between Richard and Aumerle (my favourite character in this production each time). David Tennant explained to us how Aumerle emerged as a more important part of the story than he perhaps usually is during rehearsals and that it became clear that his journey is so important to the piece. This made the ending to this production the perfect choice (in the text, an unknown character Exton pops up and kills Richard, but some believe it was meant to be Aumerle but that pressure from figures at the time resulted in the change). David said how he thinks it makes more sense this way, otherwise the scene with the Yorks towards the end doesn’t really serve any purpose.
David also spoke about the Flint Castle scene (my personal favourite in the production) and that he couldn’t remember whether the decision to make Aumerle the murderer came before or after the development of the Flint Castle scene and its pivotal role in Richard and Aumerle’s relationship. He spoke about its development being organic and that the kiss was not in the script, but just happened naturally in rehearsals and just felt right.
Fathers & Sons
Oliver Ford Davies went on to talk about how the play is one about fathers and sons, with three different pairings in the plays of this cycle: Bolingbroke/Hal, Northumberland/Harry Percy and York/Aumerle, which is made all the more interesting by the fact Richard has no sons. In this vein, he spoke about how the play mirrors Macbeth, where it is the Macbeths without children, unlike those around them, such as Macduff.
Journey of self discovery
Jane Lapotaire discussed how she sees something of the quality of Hamlet in Richard, in terms of his vulnerability. She spoke of the journey of self discovery within the play – how Richard begins as a big King, but a small man, who then goes on to become a true human being, while losing his position. I found it incredibly interesting when she spoke of this being a pattern to look out for in Shakespeare’s plays, referencing Lear, who starts as a great King, but only really has a real connection when he meets Poor Tom, with the question always being “how well does the character know himself?”
David agreed with her, saying that Richard certainly goes on a journey of self discovery during the play, including confronting his relationship with the divine, in that he is a man so confident that he has the divine on his side, but that ultimately it never turns up to assist him when he needs it the most.
With that interesting discussion the Q&A drew to a close, much to my disappointment. It’s always so valuable to listen to actors at the RSC discussing Shakespeare and the many concepts and themes running through all his work. I could have listened to such insights all night and would love the RSC to arrange more of these talks. They prove that no matter how many times you see a play, there is always more to learn and think about, which highlights just how wonderful Shakespeare’s body of work is and how lucky we are to have such talented actors bringing it to life before us, over 400 years since they were first written. Long may this continue!
The RSC’s King & Country cycles continue at the Barbican Theatre until 24th January, before the Henrys head to China, to then be joined by Richard II in New York in March and April. For last minute availability visit the Barbican’s website.