One of the pleasures of reviewing online theatre material is that occasionally something will surface from the vaults that you never got to see at the time and assumed had disappeared for ever. In 1995, Fiona Shaw caused something of a stir when she played the king in Richard II at the National Theatre in a production directed by Deborah Warner. Typical of the flak received was this comment in The Independent: “(This)… is the sort of thing you might expect to see at the end of term in a boarding school but there is no history of the part being played by a woman professionally. It is gimmick casting.” Although not all reviews followed this line, there were plenty in that vein and many a feather was ruffled on both sides of the argument. Anyway, I missed it so I was pleasantly surprised to see a filmed version popping up as part of The Shows Must Go On mini-Shakespeare season, meaning I could both catch up and make up my own mind.
I always find the play quite hard to watch – it was my own “O” Level set play (That old? Really?) meaning that it was always an over-familiar text, and you know what they say about familiarity. I can remember learning great chunks ready to quote in the exam and I can still rattle off the whole of the “Hollow Crown” speech if called upon to do so – though to be fair this always made for a handy audition speech should the need arise. So, in that sense it is a play laden with significance. It was also given significance in Shakespeare’s day when the Earl of Essex commissioned the play to be performed before mounting a rebellion against Elizabeth; Will could easily have lost his head over that.
Richard II, relatively unusually, is written entirely in blank verse which gives it an uneasy formality; indeed, it is a play which relies heavily on both the artifice of language and of that created by ritual. Hildegard Bechtler’s designs emphasise this ceremonial dimension being all glittering gold and brilliant white. The opening scenes are laden with ceremony and formal procedure as Bolingbroke and Mowbray accuse each other of treason and set up for combat. The king seems to relish all the spectacle and speeches that accompany such an event but can’t be doing with the actual fighting. Then there is all the formality of the deposition preceded by much hurling of gages as the various lords challenge each other to combat before the new king has even been installed. This production embraces these challenges by using a team of actors who know their bardly business. Thus, there are elder statesman actors such as Graham Crowden and Donald Sinden (John of Gaunt and the Duke of York respectively) on hand to lend authority to the speaking of the text and experienced Shakespeareans such as John McEnery and Roger Sloman (who each play several roles) to create depth. Deborah Warner’s clever move here has been to align her undoubtedly new way of doing things with the long tradition of honed stagecraft afforded by such a team.
And right at the centre is the unsettling figure of Fiona Shaw as Richard. I say unsettling not because of anything to do with gender but because there seems to be an almost other worldly quality to the performance. Richard is portrayed as someone totally out of step with what is going on around him, having a short attention span and making capricious decisions. Shaw plays up the elements of Richard’s hesitation and needing reassurance and the character’s tendency to do U turns on policy and personal feeling at every juncture. The clear message coming across is that Richard understands himself to be God’s anointed and is therefore genuinely bewildered by the changes in fortune and any signs of disapproval which are immediately elevated to the realms of disloyalty/betrayal. As expected, Shaw handles the set piece speeches with total commitment none more so that the final meditation on time – which is a meditation, not a speech, and all the stronger for it.
Unfortunately, John of Gaunt dies quite early on, though he does have THE speech of the play in the eulogy to England’s former glories. And it is important to remember that is what it is; not so much a hymn of praise as a funeral dirge for what is past and gone – plus ça change! Crowden invests Gaunt with a tired and weary demeanour from the outset and makes the various hammer blows he receives enough of a convincing reason for his decline and demise. Sinden is also good value as the Duke of York though the farcical scenes between him, his wife and son which figure towards the end of the play have been cut; therefore, he also departs from the plot far too soon. I can’t quite put my finger on why, but I didn’t much care for Richard Bremner’s portrayal of Bolingbroke which I never felt quite clicked into place. Fiona Shaw is such a strong performer that I think it was tricky for Bremner to get the upper hand character-wise, and, of course, that is what the actor playing Bolingbroke has to do. Also, the final scene of the character’s seeming repentance has been removed which means the focus at the end of the play is very firmly on Richard – just the way he would have liked it.
This is an important production which has rightly been preserved for posterity. It had huge significance in being one of the modern era’s opening salvos in cross gender casting. More latterly with Harriet Walter playing both Brutus and Prospero, Glenda Jackson taking on Lear, Kathryn Hunter as Richard III and Maxine Peake giving her Hamlet, we have all become much more used to this way of doing things. And although it may still be regarded as the exception rather than the rule it is not the cause for negative comment it once was – it’s good to see there have been some advances made in the last twenty five years.
Richard II is available via The Shows Must Go On website – click here
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