Saturday morning saw me back at the Barbican. Not for a play this time, but for the last of the RSC’s King & Country talks in the Frobisher Auditorium, to listen to David Tennant and Jonathan Slinger talk about their experiences playing Richard II for the RSC. It was a truly insightful and thoroughly interesting hour, which could have gone on much longer as these fine actors talked about this particular role.
I’ve tried to capture in this post the questions and answers given during the discussion, for those unable to attend. Moderator Emma Smith did mention that the event was being recorded for the RSC’s archive. If I can find out any more details of that I’ll update this post.
Richard II in the context of the other History plays?
Jonathan Slinger (“JS”), played Richard II for the RSC during Michael Boyd’s Histories Cycle in 2007/2008. He spoke of approaching the role, with the knowledge that the company were going to do all eight Histories together and that he would be book ending them, playing both Richard II and Richard III. For him the play works as a standalone, as do most of the Histories, but that there is a narrative running through them all as well and by doing them all they were able to draw out the echoes and narratives of the whole piece.
David Tennant (“DT”) has had the opposite experience, as he approached Richard II as very much a standalone piece. It was Greg Doran’s first production as Artistic Director and had been mounted as a standalone, so he didn’t have to get in to the greater context too much. He spoke of returning to the role now, two years later, remounting it so that it fits in to the other plays of the cycle and how he is now more aware of the moments where Richard II casts forward to the other plays, such as the moment Richard speaks to Northumberland, foreshadowing the events of Henry IV Part One.
Working with the play’s reliance on the history that has come before it?
DT said how he had always loved the play, but that he’d never really understood the beginning – who was dead? why? what are the undercurrents at work? He agreed that it is not set out, so it’s tricky to understand and also hard to help the audience understand what’s going on and the political world they are in.
The lightbulb moment for the current RSC production, he said, was deciding to put the dead body of Gloucester in the centre of the opening scene and have that happen at his funeral. This also highlights the inappropriateness of Richard’s behaviour, thinking that they should sort out this disagreement at the funeral speaking to his personality!
JS described their staging of the opening in his production. They too had the body on stage, but the actual body, which he (as Richard) steps over to get to the throne. Mowbray and Bolingbroke then entered the stage and the “ghost” of Gloucester stood up and eyeballed Mowbray. He said this was perhaps more subtle than the current production (which he admitted he hadn’t seen).
Both actors also spoke about the earlier play Thomas of Woodstock, which it’s believed the people at the time were very much aware of and therefore knew the backstory without it being in Shakespeare’s play, although DT thought it was an odd omission by Shakespeare, who doesn’t normally make the context so obscure.
Costumes and how they helped get in to character?
JS explained that his Histories cycle was done in full Elizabethan costume, in reference to the fact that Elizabeth I is known to have recognised herself in the character of Richard II. He also thought that the vain, superficial image of Richard fitted that costume and described how the costume and makeup were gradually stripped away, as Richard goes from a lack of self awareness to full self knowledge, as he loses all material wealth and possessions.
DT said he found the fact that Richard had been born to be King and been crowned when still a boy interesting. Richard has never been in a world where he has had to conform. Therefore the way he acts is always correct as no one will challenge him, for example no one would ever say to him “Cut your bloody hair!”. So he can have long hair, have gold gilded on his fingernails etc. as that sets him apart from everyone else. He also spoke about how the long hair was also useful to play on the Christ-like image later (“in his white nightie”!).
Richard as a tragic character?
Emma Smith posed the question to DT and JS as to whether Richard is like an actor, playing a part all the time. Both actors didn’t think this was the case, not believing that Richard thinks he is performing.
JS spoke of Richard’s chronic insecurity, resulting in him perhaps creating a persona and that you could argue that that persona runs skin deep. He did also refer to Richard’s belief in his divine right to rule, but how once pricked in the beach scene, this so quickly collapses, making you wonder just how much Richard did really believe this!
He agreed with DT that Richard doesn’t think he is performing, although queried whether by the end of the play he realises this, as he speaks the line “Thus play I in one prison many people”. JS was able to brilliantly recite the speech from the prison, earning a round of applause. As Richard II is his favourite play he said that it had stayed with him.
DT commented on Richard being forced in to a realisation once God doesn’t turn up to fight for him. He said it must have been terrible to realise this when you have always thought the angels would literally come down from on high and then they don’t. The deposition scene in DT’s view is where Richard knows he has to fight his own battle- he has complete control of the room and there is a tragedy in that. He only realises how powerful he is when he has lost it all and that scene for DT is an example of great leadership.
The actors also spoke about Richard’s lineage, being the son of the Black Prince, who was the Henry V of his day. He was a warrior and it made JS wonder to what extent did Richard grow up with an impossible father to follow and that he comes up short because he cannot live up to him. He spoke about Richard going for the superficial aspects of being King, but not the substance as that wasn’t really who he was. DT also referred to it being Richard who had come up with the title of “Highness”, literally elevating himself above others.
They also both spoke about the deposition scene and how in it Richard is showing them all what they are choosing over him – choosing Bolingbroke over a true King and how in that scene Richard realises that he is losing everything, not just the crown, highlighted by the line “I have no name.” He is literally nothing if not King.
Relationships with other characters?
DT spoke about Richard’s relationship with Aumerle (my favourite aspect of the current production). He said how this seems to be the only real human relationship he has ever had and that it is this that gives him the strength to surrender at Flint Castle. With that strength he is able to undermine Bolingbroke and shame his court, which lays the basis for the troubles he experiences in the next play of the cycle.
They also discussed the possible similarities between Richard and Bolingbroke and spoke of the 1973 RSC production in which Ian Richardson and Richard Pasco alternated the roles to draw out similarities between them. In their current production, DT said they had chosen the opposite – Richard and Bolingbroke are very much opposites – like fire and water (referenced in Bolingbroke’s speech at Flint Castle). For DT, it makes more sense this way. JS said he’d never seen a production staged like that 1973 one, but could see how it would be effective in emphasising the acuteness of betrayal if such a closeness had been set up.
One of the saddest scenes for JS was the scene in which Richard says farewell to his Queen. He’d always had the sense that she had been shunted around in favour of Richard’s yes-men, when actually she was the only person determined to wait for him on his way to prison. You see her loyalty and her deep affection for him and he thought this played in to Richard’s growing realisations as he sees how important she was on the way to his death. She was another thing he had wasted – the line “I wasted time” in the prison represents so much – people he should have been intimate with, things he should have done. For JS it was always a very sad scene.
DT commented on the fact that in reality Richard’s Queen at that time had been a child, being a marriage very much for political advantage, but that it’s believed that Richard’s first marriage was one of great love (the two are in fact buried next to each other). DT spoke of the difficulties of playing this relationship, as Shakespeare makes the Queen an adult, includes her in the play, but then doesn’t really utilise her. He found it the hardest scene in rehearsals, as the company tried to understand why the Queen was there and what the purpose of the scene was and that he liked JS’s view on it. DT also said how he felt sorry for both actresses who had played the Queen in this production (Emma Hamilton and now Leigh Quinn), as he spends hours ignoring her and then about 10:30 p.m, just goes “Oh go to France!”. He finds it sad that Richard can’t quite connect with her.
The politics of the play today, when there isn’t a belief in the divine right?
JS commented that the play introduces the idea that deposition is something that can happen and that such an idea is still current in our daily lives and therefore this makes Richard II as a play very relevant.
DT referred to how the play is about the delusions of power and how that can fall apart, which is still something in today’s world. He used the example of North Korea, which though not a divine right is still an example of someone ruling without challenge. JS also jokingly referred to Simon Cowell (who, DT joked could never be deposed!).
Did Shakespeare have to write Henry IV and Henry V afterwards to get back in to favour?
Both actors agreed that it was impossible to know as these events happened hundreds of years ago. DT did comment on how great Henry V is and said he was uncertain that Richard II was actually written by Shakespeare to be a critique of Elizabeth I. That was certainly how it was taken at the time, but he was not convinced that that was Shakespeare’s actual intention when writing it.
Emma Smith commented on how the Histories are about the anxieties of regime change, written at a time when it was uncertain who would follow Elizabeth I / what would happen on her death. She noted how there were no more such plays once the new monarch took the throne.
How much of their performance was influenced by Shakespeare’s interpretation of history and by their own understanding of it?
JS talked about having researched the backstory of Richard and the Black Prince, which he used to assist with his interpretation, for example how Richard handled the peasant’s revolt. He said however that if you stuck too rigidly to history you would go mad!
DT agreed that, as with anything based on real people, you have to respect the topic enough, but have to also respect the script and the story you are telling.
As Richard II was written before most of the tragedies, how much do they think it informed Shakespeare’s later writing of tragedies?
DT said that that was a very difficult question to answer. He did say that he thought Shakespeare enjoyed writing Richard and seems energised by the character.
JS’s view was that Shakespeare reached the pinnacle in writing a tragic character with Richard, using the example of Richard III, which he said, although a great character to play, is someone with nowhere near as much complexity.
DT’s favourite scene is the deposition scene, as it is where Richard finally finds himself and gets to own them all for a few moments. He compared it to an aria, with Richard showing them exactly what they’ve lost.
JS also enjoyed the deposition scene, but his favourite is the prison scene, particularly Richard’s monologue in it, which he thinks is arguably Shakespeare’s greatest monologue.
The question had also asked whether they preferred playing Richard or Hamlet (as both actors have played both parts for the RSC), but neither answered this.
Do they think Richard is afraid during the play?
JS thought that Richard is actually most afraid at the start of the play when he is trying to keep all the plates spinning. Yes, he is scared as he loses everything, but in that he also finds strength.
DT referred to the moment in the first scene when people don’t do as Richard tells them. He thinks he will tell Bolingbroke and Mowbray to make peace and then that will be that. When they don’t choose to throw down their gage’s and want to defend their honour instead of obeying his command it all starts to go wrong for Richard. In DT’s view, after that there is a mounting fear for Richard, as once God’s deputy on earth stops being treated as such, then it’s only really a matter of time until it ends.
Sadly that was all there was time for during this event. I think everyone attending the talk could have happily stayed there and listened to these actors’s thoughts on the play and these characters all day!
I certainly hope the RSC continues to hold these talks and if possible schedules even more of them, as they are a superb way for you to really have the chance to dig deeper in to these plays, with the help of the actors who so skilfully bring them to life on stage.