Having already chosen my top ten productions of the year and my favourite performances of the year, for my last 2016 theatre review post I wanted to look back on my most memorable moments at the theatre in the last twelve months. These are the moments that have stayed in my mind, whether a set, scene or personal experience while seeing a show.
The mind-bending set change at the end of Wild (Hampstead Theatre)
I had heard so many people talk about the staging of Mike Bartlett’s Wild before I arrived at the Hampstead Theatre and that final set change was certainly a sight to be seen! Watching one set change in to another, much starker one was already impressive and then it started to rotate! I admit I was a little distracted from the actual scene itself. Top marks to the set designer and stage management team for this feat.
Watching the cast of Unreachable do all they could to make each other corpse during their final show (Royal Court)
I’d hoped to see Unreachable twice, but had to miss my earlier trip, meaning my only visit was to the final show. Seeing the final performance seemed to heighten the hilarity, as a number of times the cast, particularly Jonjo O’Neil, were trying to throw their fellow cast members off. It was very very funny and one of the most fun trips I’ve had to the theatre.
My return to the wonderful world of Punchdrunk (Sleep No More, NYC)
A Punchdrunk show is always an experience to remember and Sleep No More in NYC was no exception. From the first moments of making my way in to the venue in darkness, to exploring the eerie and intricate rooms and levels, where I sampled the sweets in the shop and leafed through the books on the shelves, right through to my own one-on-one experience with one of the cast, I had a great time. I only hope it’s still there on my next trip.
Genuinely feeling as though someone was behind me blowing in my ear at The Encounter (Barbican)
From immersive theatre to sensory theatre with my trip to Simon McBurney’s one-man show The Encounter. Using special technology (including the head in the photo), he was able to transport us in to the rainforests of Brazil. The moment he had us close our eyes and then created the effect that someone really was behind my right ear, blowing on it, was astonishing. The possibilities for audience interaction in future shows is very exciting indeed if such experiences can now be created.
The magical illusions in Harry Potter & The Cursed Child (Palace)
The most eagerly awaited show on the planet was just as much fun as I’d hoped (and I’m not even a huge Potter fan) and one of the biggest thrills of the theatre year for me was seeing the illusions achieved in this production. I especially loved the entrance to the Ministry of Magic. The cast must be on skates or something backstage to get from one part of the stage to another so fast! A treat for young and old alike.
Watching Glenn Close in Sunset Boulevard from the centre of the front row (London Coliseum)
Glenn Close as Norma Desmond was a performance I’d been looking forward to since it was announced and on seeing it, I just had to go back for a second time. I’m still amazed that this wasn’t a total sell out, but the fact that a week before, I was able to buy a front row ticket was unbelievable. Having Close stand so close to me and deliver that performance was a real thrill for me in 2016.
Saying goodbye to War Horse and Groundhog Day at their final London performances (New London and Old Vic)
I was lucky enough to be at the final London performances of both War Horse at the New London Theatre and Groundhog Day at the Old Vic in 2016. The first show was closing after over nine years, during which it has delighted and moved so many audiences and it was lovely to hear author Michael Morpurgo’s words of thanks to its cast and crew. On the other hand, we’d barely had Groundhog Day in theatreland before it was off to prepare for Broadway. I loved the show (it’s my favourite of 2016) and being able to say a fond farewell to it, from the front row no less, was a joy.
Experiencing the enthusiasm of New York audiences for Shakespeare during the RSC’s King and Country tour (BAM, NYC)
This year also saw my first trip to NYC since 2012 and it was filled with a great deal of wonderful theatre. However, one of the things that truly stood out was during my time at the BAM Harvey Theatre in Brooklyn, where the RSC was showcasing its King and Country cycle. Having seen it in both Stratford-Upon-Avon and London, I was surprised to experience the plays in a new environment. Antony Sher has talked about how the New York audiences were more enthusiastic and I agree with him. There was a new kind of excitement in the venue and lines received an audience response they hadn’t in the UK, which in turn had an effect on the actors. From chatting to other audience members, many had read the plays before coming and had a genuine enthusiasm for the plays. It was wonderful to be a part of it.
Being given a reminder of how precious time and life is by Gavin Plimsole (Greenwich Theatre)
One of the new theatres I visited during 2016 was the Greenwich Theatre and I was rather moved by its show The Inevitable Heartbreak of Gavin Plimsole. As we journey through the last part of Gavin’s life, depicted by marbles dropping through a chute after a certain number of heartbeats, the audience was reminded of how precious life is and how we should not take it for granted. At the end of the show, we each opened a box. Mine had a marble in it for me to keep. I have kept it in my handbag ever since. Sometimes it is the smallest shows that make the biggest impression.
There were so many special moments for me in theatres this year, but those are the ten that have stayed with me the most as I sit here and reflect on the last twelve months. Next I’ll be looking ahead to the productions I’m most excited about in 2017, which I hope to post very soon. If you have some moments that have stood out for you, let me know about them in the comments!
It’s taken me a couple of weeks to write this reflection on the final King and Country cycle. Previously I have reviewed all of the individual plays since they began with Richard II in 2013, as well as reflecting on the cycle at the Barbican this January. However, as my recent New York trip was largely scheduled around seeing the last dates of these Histories, it seemed fitting to look back one last time and also comment on the differences, both in my experience and in the performances, when seeing them during the New York run.
I find it thrilling that despite so many performances under their belts (the final King and Country tally was 505), the company was still trying new things and for anyone who’s sen them a few times it’s a wonderful added extra. It’s also fascinating to experience the plays with an audience who have much less opportunity to see live Shakespeare than we do here in the UK and to see first hand how this affects their reactions to the material.
From my time at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s (BAM) Harvey Theatre, I’d safely say that the largely American audiences loved these productions and having the RSC come to them. In fact there was a buzz that I didn’t feel at the Barbican or to some extent even at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. This is perhaps largely due to the RSC in New York being more of an event, seeing as they haven’t been regularly and the audiences were excited to see this famous theatre company bringing Shakespeare overseas. Thinking about it logically, these were the perfect plays to succeed there. The more traditional rather than modern settings and the English history (albeit Shakespeare’s version) seemed, from the people we spoke with, to be exactly what they imagined the Royal Shakespeare Company to be doing.
BAM was an ideal theatre for the plays too. Built in 1904 as the Majestic Theatre, the BAM Harvey Theatre’s auditorium is weathered and has a old-age feel; paint flaked walls and ceilings really added to the sense that a little bit of English history had come back to life in a venue of the past. I also really liked the rake of BAM, with a great view from every seat I had (it’s a bit like the Trafalgar Studios rake for those that know it). This again meant a slightly different viewing experience than I’d had in Stratford-Upon-Avon or London.
The plays themselves were just a strong as they had been and as far as Henry IV is concerned, this was my favourite time watching it (having seen it once in Stratford in 2014 and then once during each of the two Barbican runs). At a book event earlier in the week, Antony Sher had commented how he felt the US audiences were listening and reacting better to the plays and on experiencing them for myself, I have to agree with him. Lines which I’ve not heard get a reaction before in all four of the plays (but especially Henry IV) found one at BAM. I heard quite a few people there saying how they had read the plays before coming and perhaps we are so used to Shakespeare in the UK that we aren’t as focussed as an audience who has less chance to see them live. In turn, this clearly had an effect on the performances, especially Mr Sher, who seemed happier and more at ease at BAM. Perhaps coming to the end of the run played a part, but you could see that he was enjoying and feeding off the audience reactions.
I’m sure it’s no surprise to regular readers that I saw Richard II the most since 2013. I’d been at the first preview in October 2013 and I loved the idea of seeing the very last performance, especially as in my view, this is a production which has only gone from strength to strength over time. It was in Richard II where I picked up on little changes, the most obvious being in my favourite scene – Flint Castle. Having seen David Tennant play the scene with both Oliver Rix and now Sam Marks (as well as Oli and Sam together during the understudy performance), it was wonderful that they were still experimenting even at the end of the run. I saw Richard II twice at BAM and both times, instead of dodging the crown when Richard moves to place it on his head, Sam Marks stayed still and Richard II did indeed crown Aumerle. Once Tennant then removed it with a sigh (it’s Richard’s burden, not his cousin’s) and the second time Marks removed it and with sadness gave it back to Richard. It wasn’t a big change, but it was something subtle and lovely to see played in a slightly different way after all this time.
All the company were on fine form in New York and special mention to Evelyn Miller going on in place of Jennifer Kirby for the final Henry IV Part 2 and Henry V. They should all be hugely proud of the King and Country cycle and it was very special to be at the final Henry V to see the 505th and final performance. I’m sure after such a welcome, it won’t be long before the RSC is back in New York and you never know, I may just have to tag along too!
You can purchase the RSC’s King and Country plays on DVD from all the usual stockists. As the DVDs are region free, it’s worth considering buying them from US Amazon where the 4 play set is only $40!
Last weekend saw me back at the Barbican to enjoy the final cycle of the RSC’s tetralogy of History plays, which began life in October 2013 with Richard II. Although this was the culmination of the London run, I couldn’t ignore such an achievement on this blog and have reviewed both Henry IV and Henry V separately to accompany this reflection on the spectacle as a whole.
The King and Country cycle gave audiences the opportunity to delve deeper in to the fabric of four of Shakespeare’s Histories, by seeing them back to back over three days. Although each works as a standalone, seeing them performed as one, with the same actors, set and wonderful musicians added so much more to the viewing experience, perhaps more than I anticipated. This unique way of watching these plays was thrilling, as the pieces slotted together and the wider picture became clear.
The development of characters was more profound, particularly Bolingbroke through to King Henry IV and his son Prince Hal, who grows so much to become the King he is by the end of Henry V. The political intrigues and manoeuvres are more obvious and easier to follow; you see Northumberland aid Bolingbroke, Richard predict how he will later turn against his new king, only for this to occur in Henry IV and with Sean Chapman in the role across all the plays, the character had a depth to him which would not have been as evident to the audience on viewing just one instalment.
Characters you have heard referred to in one play appear later, making your understanding of their role in the larger picture so much clearer, for example Worcester, who we hear Harry Percy speak of in Richard II and then meet in Henry IV as he takes his place in rebellion with his nephew. In the case of Aumerle (who became the Duke of York on the death of his father), he disappears from the story, but the moment the Duke of Exeter describes his death on the battlefield at Agincourt in Henry V has an extra level of poignancy when only two days before you saw the tragic arc of his character in Richard II.
The use of imagery across the cycle is also very clever, with the audience spotting echoes of earlier moments in the history in later plays. One example that stood out for me was when Falstaff and Shadow in Henry IV mirrored the image of Bolingbroke and Richard holding either side of the crown. Then there is the simple image of each new king seated on the same throne, which when watched in so short a space of time highlights the transient nature of the crown during this period in our history. Some of the casting choices also resulted in wonderful imagery, such as Matthew Needham in Henry IV Part II playing Mowbray, who is standing next to the Archbishop of York as he reflects on the death of their brave Hotspur. It seems to emphasise the spirit of Harry Percy having Needham in that role. It’s also lovely to bookend the cycle with Jane Lapotaire on the stage – at the start in mourning, all in black and at the end as Queen Isobel in a light grey gown in happier times. Then of course there are the recurring references to the death of Richard, with Henry V still trying to atone for his father’s earlier actions years later. So many of these moments resonated much more when seeing the whole story told as one.
One of the other thrilling aspects of the King and Country cycle for me was watching all the hard work and dedication of the ensemble come together. Having seen all of the plays in their original stand-alone runs, you see how much they have all developed their performances, but also their confidence as actors, particularly the younger members of the company. This was one of the highlights of the 2008/2009 RSC ensemble and is something I haven’t been as excited about since then. When you also remember that most of the company is playing at least one understudy role in each play, the level of their skill and commitment to the project is even more incredible.
It’s fantastic to see such young talents at the early stage of their careers and imagine all the roles that you may see them perform in the future. Olly Rix stood out in the original Richard II run (in fact he impressed me much more than David Tennant during those early performances of that production in Stratford-Upon-Avon). Matthew Needham has joined in these later stages of the cycle and commanded his scenes as Hotspur in Henry IV, as well as making that character much more of a presence in Richard II. The first trio of Bushey, Bagot and Greene (Sam Marks, Jake Mann and Marcus Griffiths) had a whole run to finesse their roles and it’s a shame Martin Bassindale, Nichols Gerard-Martin, and Robert Gilbert don’t have as long. However, each of these actors gives strong performances across the cycle as a whole and I particularly enjoyed Gilbert’s Greene in Richard II and Bassindale’s Boy and Gerard-Martin’s Orleans in Henry V.
Of the original trio of Richard’s flatterers only Sam Marks remains and he became a firm favourite for me from this company. Sam has grown so much over the last two and a half years at the RSC, resulting in confident, developed, nuanced performances in every role he has in the cycle. His Aumerle is a match for Olly’s, bringing his sense of conflict to the fore much more and creating with Tennant an even more emotional connection between their two characters (something I really didn’t think was possible). Poins remains a lovely sidekick to the partying Prince Hal and their friendship feels genuine and warm and his Constable of France is also a strong presence, who you feel sorry didn’t survive the battle (or I did anyway)! I genuinely cannot wait to see what projects these actors move on to next, but I’ll certainly be buying tickets. It is a unique aspect of the RSC’s company approach that has helped foster such talent with Ed Bennett, Sam Alexander, Mariah Gale, Jonjo O’Neill, Alex Waldmann and Pippa Nixon being actors I now make a concerted effort to see in every role after watching them on stage in Stratford-Upon-Avon.
I realise that people who didn’t experience the King and Country cycle, or who perhaps haven’t yet appreciated how special Shakespeare can be, will find the idea of four plays in three days an effort. For me however, I loved every moment of this very special project and would have happily stayed on for The War of the Roses tetralogy had that been an option. I’ll have to make do with series two of the BBC’s Hollow Crown for this in April!
Although the UK run of the cycle is over now, the plays are off on an international tour. Henry IV and V can be seen next (albeit with some slight shuffling of the cast for this leg of the tour) in China, first in Beijing, then Shanghai and then Hong Kong. They will then be joined by Richard II in New York at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I am thrilled to be going to the final New York cycle in April to enjoy them all one last time and if you are able to go yourself, I would certainly recommend you buying tickets for the tour too!
For further information on the international King and Country tour visit the website here. Richard II and Henry IV, as filmed in Stratford-Upon-Avon, are available on DVD from the RSC shop and the usual stockists. Henry V will be available in due course.
(Photo via the RSC)
Following on from yesterday’s post about Henry IV, on then to Henry V, which is of course the culmination of everything that has gone before in this tetralogy of plays. The party prince Hal, who realises to lead he must leave his past and Falstaff behind, goes on to become a King his people can be proud of and seeing this within a day of Henry IV only highlighted how far he comes in such a short period of time.
Alex Hassell is excellent in this production and there’s no doubt playing all three back to back strengthens his performance. It also enables the audience to appreciate the subtleties of his portrayal. At times during Henry IV, his Hal comes across as a bit stilted, but when you see the three together, you can see the development of the man. So much about him changes, his mannerisms, physical movements and even his voice, as he grows from Eastcheap lad to soldier and leader. In the opening moments of the play, on being presented with the evidence of his claim to France, he is overwhelmed – battling to keep a façade of control, but you see it in his face; the boy still adjusting to the man he must be now.
When you compare this to the confident soldier he is at the play’s conclusion you realise how far he and indeed Hassell have come. Everything Hal has experienced results in him being a better King. The mistake the French and no doubt some in his own Court make is to see his Eastcheap escapades as a sign he will be a weak ruler. In fact it is those experiences that give Henry the insight in to his people and then the ability to rally them to victory against all the odds and Hassell’s passion during those iconic battle speeches on Sunday was the best I’ve seen him perform them yet.
The staging is also wonderful. Beginning and ending with the bowels of the Barbican backstage area on display, it fits perfectly with a play, which through the inclusion of the Chorus (here played by the ever-excellent Oliver Ford Davies) invites the audience to accept this is a retelling of a great tale and to use their imaginations to fill in the gaps. I still love Oliver Ford Davies picking up the crown to put it on, only for Hassell to appear and snatch it from him, to the raised eyes of the older actor! It’s a wonderful start to what is a truly wonderful production.
Drawing on the strength of this ensemble all of the performances are spot on throughout. Joshua Richards is especially brilliant as Fluellen and his scene with the soldiers from Ireland, England and Scotland is a particular highlight, showing through its humour how perhaps the English viewed the other realms of the British Isles at the time. Simon Yadoo’s Scottish soldier is hilarious in that you don’t understand a single word he says!
The members of the French contingent are also very good too. Robert Gilbert is ridiculously silly as the Dauphin, flicking his hair and preening like a peacock, so arrogant in his supposed position of superiority over Henry (and indeed those on his own side). Sam Marks is again a strong presence on the stage as the Constable of France and his relationship with the Dauphin, filled with friction is brilliant to watch (particularly as they use the tactic of emphasis on syllables in words to fire barbed insults at one another).
Jennifer Kirby is wonderful as Princess Katherine (or Kate as Hal calls her – quite modern and fitting in a world with our own royal Kate). Her ability to bring humour and fun through her early scenes while speaking French is impressive and her playful chemistry with Hassell in the final scene of the play is a joy to watch (indeed on Sunday, Alex Hassell almost had her in stitches). It could be a very modern scene, a testament to the brilliance of the playwright who wrote it 400 years ago!
I loved this production in Stratford-Upon-Avon and it has only improved over its Barbican run, resulting in a triumphant final fanfare yesterday, of which everyone involved should feel incredibly proud.
The King And Country productions can still be seen on their international tour. Henry IV and V first in China next month and then all four plays go to New York in March. For details and ticket information visit the RSC’s website here. Henry V will also be released in due course on DVD. My post reflecting on the King and Country cycle as a whole will follow shortly.
Last week saw me return to the Barbican to see Henry IV (which I’d first seen in Stratford-Upon-Avon and then again at the Barbican a year ago). Now back as part of the King and Country cycle I was looking forward to seeing it again. I’ve written at length on this blog about the RSC’s Richard II (click on the tag Richard II for all posts), but in terms of the other plays of the cycle, it was Henry IV that I enjoyed so much more this time around. My overall thoughts on the cycle as a whole will appear in a separate post within the next day.
Antony Sher’s Falstaff, although very good, hadn’t captured my attention and emotion in the same way as Roger Allam had, but on this run I found his performance so much stronger. The voice he uses for Falstaff (which I admit I did find a bit OTT) had been taken down a notch or two and it was a much more settled performance, which I actually very much enjoyed. He still has a lovely relationship with Alex Hassell’s Prince Hal, especially early on and the playful jokes between him, Hal and Poins were lovely to see again. You do indeed see the Eastcheap gang as a family and perhaps understand why Hal enjoys being part of it rather than the Court. This makes the end of Part II all the more poignant as Hal turns away from his former life and his dear friend. Sher’s “I will be sent for” was so sad, as you sense that perhaps even Falstaff knows that’s a lie.
The other key character within Part I has to be Hotspur and although Trevor White’s manic, bleach-blonde performance was certainly different, it did grate on me after a while and I preferred Matthew Needham’s portrayal of this young man through Richard II and Henry IV Part I, which I thought was fantastic. He was able to convey the moments of humour, anger and frustration perfectly, resulting in the audience (or certainly me anyway) liking him and admiring his courage and bravery – putting him in stark contrast to the revelling Prince Hal. This added a different dimension to their final confrontation and it was thrilling to see these two men sword to sword. You yearn for circumstances to be different between these them, here set on opposing trajectories, as you can imagine how perhaps they could have been a great source of strength for each other had they been on the same side. Having seen Needham on stage previously in comedy The Knight of the Burning Pestle at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse (and on crutches no less after an injury) I knew he’d be a great addition to the ensemble and he certainly didn’t disappoint. Sarah Parks also gave a wonderful Mistress Quickly and Emma King’s Doll was a feisty Scottish lass, whose scene with Anthony Byrne’s Pistol was great fun.
I’m still not a huge fan of Henry IV Part II, but I really enjoyed it on Saturday. It was funny, but not ridiculous and the growing ill health of the King was perfectly captured by Jasper Britton, whose final speech was a key, stand-out moment of the weekend, particularly after you as an audience has travelled with that character over two days through from being Bolingbroke to the dying King Henry. Playing Bolingbroke has certainly enhanced his approach to Henry IV and seeing his decline from confident rebel to weak, dying man was particularly poignant during the cycle. Britton’s wonderful, fatherly relationship with Needham’s Hotspur in Richard II highlighted the distance between him and his own son at the start of Henry IV and seeing them side by side on his deathbed in Part II, at last with an affection that they may never really have had was delicately played by both Britton and Hassell.
My main reason for never enjoying Part II as much as Part I is the interlude away from the main plot to see Falstaff’s visits to Shadow and Silence and on previous visits to this production, as much as I love Oliver Ford Davies and Jim Hooper, it still didn’t really appeal to me. However, as part of the cycle experience they felt like light relief in a much broader way and were much more enjoyable during this viewing. I still don’t think they serve much purpose and for me the play wouldn’t suffer from their absence, but the actors were on fine form on Saturday. I also appreciated the moment Falstaff and Shadow mirrored Bolingbroke and Richard holding either side of the crown. It was a moment I would only ever have picked up on by watching the whole cycle as one.
Another favourite of these productions was Sam Marks’ Ned Poins, who although in Henry IV for only a few scenes, captures the closeness and brotherly affection between him and Hal and the banter and fun of their world, draws the audience in. This only makes it a little more sad to be aware that such frivolity will clearly never last once Hal becomes King. Credit also needs to go to Emma King as Lady Mortimer, whose ability to speak and sing with such emotion in Welsh was incredibly impressive.
Overall, although it’s still my least favourite of the three stories of the cycle, I thoroughly enjoyed this visit to this production, much more so than before and it paved the way wonderfully for Henry V.
Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 can next be seen in China and then New York as part of the King and Country tour. Details can be found here. For those who missed the shows in the UK, an earlier 2014 performance was filmed and is available to buy on DVD from the RSC and all the usual retailers.
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.
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.