After a bit of a break, The Show Must Go Online was firmly back in history mode last week, as it was time for the beginning of Shakespeare’s second tetralogy in Richard II. Not quite as much bloodshed as the previous set of histories that we’ve seen – more posturing and challenging than anything – and so not too much of a jolt from the previous week’s Love’s Labour’s Lost.
I first saw this play as part of the Hollow Crown series, but have since seen some very contrasting theatrical productions; quite fittingly, my first production was the David Tennant-led RSC version (when it returned for a run at the Barbican back in 2016), followed by Joe Hill-Gibbins’ Almeida production (starring Simon Russell Beale), and finally the all-female version – with Adjoa Andoh in the title role – at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. The only other version that I wish I’d been able to see was Scena Mundi’s, partly because it was mounted in the beautiful St Bartholomew the Great (at least I got a taste of it via a reading a few weeks ago).
The introduction came from Hailey Bachrach – someone incredibly well-placed to talk about Richard II, as she’s currently completing her PhD at King’s College (in collaboration with Shakespeare’s Globe) on the female roles in the history plays – and she also worked as a research assistant for the Globe’s recent cycle of histories. Richard II was “a king for whom a lot of things go wrong” – and he was “irresponsible and much disliked” (sound familiar..?). The play was written in c.1595, though its most famous performance was in 1601; Elizabeth I was in her 60s and without a designated heir – the Earl of Essex paid the Lord Chamberlain’s Men to put on a performance of the play in the hope it would inspire the audience to rise up and join him in marching on the Queen to force her to grant him an audience. Essex’s rebellion failed, but from then on an “indelible link” was forged between the two monarchs. It’s also a perfect play to be watching now: “What happens when everything we thought we knew falls away?”
Spanning the final two years of Richard II’s fairly short (but far from uneventful) reign, the play starts as it means to go on – with a dispute that needs to be settled. Following heated argument between Thomas Mowbray & Henry Bolingbroke, Richard decides that the only way it can be resolved is trial by combat, against the pleas of his uncle (and Bolingbroke’s father) John of Gaunt. When it comes down to it, however, Richard takes it upon himself to make the decision – just before the pair come to blows. Mowbray is banished forever, whereas Bolingbroke is exiled for six years (decreased from ten to appease John of Gaunt); before he leaves, Mowbray predicts that Bolingbroke will be the King’s downfall. Not long after this, John of Gaunt dies and Richard seizes his money & property – prompting Bolingbroke to come out of exile early in order to overthrow the King by way of revenge. His chance to gain some momentum comes when Richard heads over to Ireland to oversee the wars there; by the time he returns, Bolingbroke has executed some of Richard’s loyal followers and converted the Duke of York to his cause. But will he succeed in taking the throne from his cousin?
The game this time was ‘guess the gauntlets’ – just how many are thrown down during the course of the play? In true TSMGO style there was no answer, but several groundlings suggested there were eight, which matched up with my tally; early on I think Richard tries to goad Bolingbroke & Mowbray into throwing down a second gage, but I was getting stressed out at my WiFi dropping in & out around that time, so forgive me if my mind wasn’t completely in the game for a bit! Plus my brain instinctively went back to the 90s TV show Gladiators as that had a round called ‘Gauntlet‘ (I am an educated woman, I promise)… Anyway, the majority of the gauntlet throwing comes later on in the play, when Aumerle gets himself into a bit of a pickle and seeming to want to challenge everyone he encounters – fair enough if you think that he’s clung in there as one of Richard’s loyalists, despite his father (the Duke of York) switching sides.
I was very excited when I saw the cast announcement, as we had another female Richard on our hands! In a series which has seen some truly excellent gender-blind casting, this decision was perhaps to be expected – and as there are so few female characters in this play, it was also unsurprising to see some other male roles go to the women in the cast (such as John of Gaunt, Northumberland, Surrey & the Bishop of Carlisle).
Let’s return to Richard II though, played brilliantly by Louise Lee (and with an incredible costume, given the circumstances!). I was intrigued to see her in the role, having previously seen her as drunk Jessica in Shit-faced Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice a couple of years ago; obviously that series does have a grounding in Shakespeare, but is also reliant on its actors being quick-witted and able to improvise – vital when you’re dealing with the possibility of a whole range of technical problems on top of everything else you have to consider. And her performance has confirmed to me that a woman should always play Richard II. As with Richard III & Joan of Arc, there is a difference between Shakespeare’s portrayal and the real person; the likelihood is that Richard II wasn’t as Machiavellian & cruel as the Bard made out – suffering a similar bad press to that which any ambitious woman tends to encounter.
As well as excellent performances all-round, I want to highlight a great technical moments. And you can see it above; though the lottery of Zoom had the screens aligned absolutely perfectly for the joust, Danann McAleer (Bullingbrook/Bolingbroke) & Neelaksh Sadhoo (Mowbray) definitely made the most of it! Some amazing plant & hat work from the gardeners & Salisbury/Abbot of Westminster, respectively, and I really enjoyed a couple of moments where a character who is being talked about makes a non-speaking appearance (there’s probably an excellent technical term for that, which I’m blanking on) – Act 5, scene 2 comes to mind, as the Duke & Duchess of York spoke of the contrasting fates of Henry & Richard.
It’s always a pleasure to return to this particular play, especially when it’s cast so thoughtfully & inclusively. There’s another little break before the series heads back in time again, but this production has definitely whet my appetite for the Henriad that’s to come!
Next week: Romeo & Juliet