August 4, 2007, by Peter Kirwan
Richard II (RSC) @ The Courtyard Theatre
With the Complete Works Festival now long over, and the Swan preparing to shut down in a couple of weeks, the RSC’s attention now seems focussed on its new Big Project. The Histories Cycle is Michael Boyd’s attempt to stage with a single company the two tetralogies of history plays that Shakespeare wrote. The Cycle opened in the Complete Works with revivals of his award-winning Henry VI and Richard III productions, and now we begin the second part of the journey, with brand new stagings of Richard II and Henry IV , with Henry V due to follow in the autumn.
Richard II sees Jonathan Slinger play his second Richard of the cycle, having already wowed critics as the crookback Richard III. He couldn’t be more different here from his gruesome villain, dressed in Elizabethan robes and ruffs with a whitened face and a general campness. He is, unsurprisingly, the centre of this production, which sees the Histories company on restrained but solid form.
As ever, Boyd’s feel for casting and rewriting throws up fascinating parallels. Chief among these is his reinvention of Bagot, played by Forbes Masson, Richard III’s King Edward. Here, Bagot (the one survivor of Richard’s companions) becomes Richard’s murderer, trying to find his place in the new regime by killing his old companion, leading to a moving death scene as Richard recognised his old friend as he fell to the floor.
The other main innovation of this production was the introduction of the ghost of Gloucester, recently murdered and haunting Richard, here unquestionably Gloucester’s killer, in the guise of various messengers and servants. Chuk Iwuji played the dead man in a nice reference to Henry VI Part III where Slinger’s Richard of Gloucester killed Iwuji’s Henry VI, and wandered the stage with staring eyes, relishing the bad news he continually bore to the king, particularly upon Richard’s return from Ireland. His presence throughout the play was a constant reminder of the crime committed by Richard that ultimately wrought his downfall, it being partly responsible for the quarrel leading to Bolingbroke’s banishment.
Where the previous four plays in the cycle had worked hard at creating spectacle, Richard II relied on the quality of its acting. Slinger gave an exceptional performance, particularly in the deposition scene where his despair and depression combined with a reckless lack of care, in no moment so powerful as the violent handing over of the crown. Lex Shrapnel also stood out as a testy Hotspur, promising interesting things for the play to follow, and it was pleasing to see Rob Carroll and Luke Neal, both of whom appeared in last year’s Antony & Cleopatra company, back at the RSC and clearly relishing their roles. Katy Stephens also stood out as Gloucester’s widow, reappearing after her death as one of Isobel’s maid with the sole line, “I could cry”.
The gardeners brought welcome relief, with the dead Gloucester and John of Gaunt appearing with shears, lawnmower and weedkiller and proceeding to soak the audience. Visual highlights included Bagot’s descending grand piano, on which he first appeared to accompany Queen Isobel as she danced, and returned later wearing a mask to provide the music Richard listened to in prison, as a prelude to his murder. The most striking image though, echoing the flood of red and white flowers that once drowned Henry VI, was a downpour of sand, engulfing Richard and Isobel at the end of the deposition scene and providing a sense of cleansing and change, marking the final approach of his doom.
This production was a welcome change of tone, the most poetic of the history plays giving the actors a chance to relish the language and the slower pace. This was Slinger’s show, however, and his Richard was excellent- instantly provoking dislike, but later arousing our pity, and mixing threat, playfulness and a childlike sensibility to great effect. He has dominated the history plays to date by being cast as both Richards, and it will be good in the remaining plays to see other actors take the central spot, but he is clearly a star, and Richard II is his finest role to date.