February 29, 2008, by Peter Kirwan

Richard II (RSC) @ The Courtyard Theatre: Highlights

It’s Friday morning, I’m nine hours into the cycle, haven’t been to bed before 1.30am for two nights and so far I’m having a great time! In the spirit of my tiredness, though, I think I’ll take a far more informal approach to the blog than usual…

  • Richard II was a fabulous start to the week, a mannered production with some astonishing performances. Chief among these was, of course, Jonathan Slinger in the title role. His vocal range, plunging in seconds from a gentle high camp voice to a resounding bass, was captivating, and gave a real sense of Richard’s power, his way of manipulating people. More than most other Shakespearean productions I’ve ever been to, I really enjoyed listening to this production- the verse speaking was beautiful throughout. Watching Slinger remove his wig and make-up and then step away from the throne, moving his arms as he cast away his rule, was breathtaking.
  • The play ran just under three hours long, which means it has speeded up a great deal since I last saw it. Symptomatic of the improvements in pace was the early joust between Mowbray and Bolingbroke, with saddles being lowered from the ceiling and the combatants being raised in the air and swung back, ready to charge. The build-up to this was handled excellently, with a palpable tension rising in the audience. Surely… surely not? They won’t, will they?
  • Hannah Barrie impressed as Isabel, particularly during her parting scene with Richard where her tears seemed genuine as she joined him beneath the pouring sand that the commons threw on his head. I liked the way that Barrie only gradually let the woman behind the make-up be seen. The whole production, starting with a formal processional dance, saw the rituals of the Elizabethan court being slowly broken down to the bleak roughness of Bolingbroke’s new regime.
  • I watched Bagot’s story more closely this time, enjoying Forbes Masson’s performance immensely. The conflation of characters to create new narratives is one of the most interesting aspects of the cycle, and watching Bagot lose faith in his friend over the three hours, from sycophantic flattering through the moment of realisation as Richard recognised his killer until the final terrifying cackle as he dragged in the coffin, made for a very interesting journey.
  • Ghosts MEANT something in this production. Chuk Iwuji is always watchable, and he gave a rivetting performance as the ghost of Gloucester, interacting with the rest of the characters almost solely as a bearer of bad news. Sharing the garden scene with Roger Watkins (a very good Gaunt, who spoke a moving “This sceptr’d isle” speech and attacked his king with an admirable fervour) gave the very funny scene an edge, contributed to by the reappearance of Gloucester’s newly-dead wife (Katy Stephens) as one of Isobel’s maid. The moment that the ghosts of husband and wife shared at the end of the scene, a secret smile that took pleasure in the spreading of ill news to the Queen, transcended the moment and provided the first glimpse into the hellish parallel world of spirits that haunt England’s history. The reappearance of Gloucester and Gaunt for the murder of the King yet again echoed this.
  • Clive Wood brought a lot of strength to the role of Bolingbroke. It was his steadiness that made him threatening, particularly in comparison to the constantly wavering Richard. His black-clothed presence moved relentlessly through the play, and even sitting on a stool his authority as King seemed already settled.
  • I found myself laughing more than I expected! Maureen Beattie’s impassioned performance as the Duchess of York, pleading on behalf of her son, provided a good deal of humour while recognising the seriousness of the situation. I liked James Tucker’s Aumerle too, whose loyalty to his king provided a nice contrast to his father, played with gravity and a little bluster by Richard Cordery. The gauntlet-throwing scene, indulged in with plenty of gusto by Tucker, Luke Neal, Rob Carroll, Antony Shuster and Lex Shrapnel was also funny in its ridiculous tally of accusations and counter-accusations and the growing pile of gloves that littered the floor.
  • Keith Bartlett and Lex Shrapnel provide one of the octology’s clearest through lines, repeatedly playing a Father and Son pair. Their performances as Northumberland and Hotspur, while far less prominent here than they would come to be, were memorable nonetheless. Bartlett exuded a gravity and power that made Richard’s fears of him (the ladder by which others ascend the throne) understandable, while Shrapnel found a fresh and quite modern quality in Hotspur, a directness that meant his plain speaking cut through the rhetoric of others. This Hotspur was someone we could identify with, someone we recognised, an aspect which made his character both humourous and likeable but didn’t take away from his dangerous potential.
  • Lastly, for this blog, Sandy Neilson’s Bishop of Carlisle stuck out in my memory. His calm dignity throughout, even not kneeling with Richard as he despaired of events on returning from Ireland, had a quiet power to it, and prepared nicely for his key scene as he exposed the court for what they were.

It was good first time round, and it was faster, funnier and more powerful this time. Slinger’s performance was the undoubted highlight, but the whole company produced stirling work. A great start!

Posted in Theatre review