February 18, 2011, by Peter Kirwan
Richard II (SAATF) @ The Tobacco Factory
Even though Richard II stands alone as a wonderful, lyrical play, there’s something about a good production that leaves you wanting more, in the form of Henry IV. Certainly the play seems to aim at that. Some of the most exciting moments in Andrew Hilton’s new production, opening this year’s season at the Tobacco Factory, were those hinting towards the future – Matthew Thomas’s young Henry IV harumphing at the distant antics of his son; the deliciously brooding Henry Percy (Jack Bannell) kneeling before his new king and pleading allegiance; Richard’s warning to John Cording’s Northumberland about future ruptures in the alliance. All the main players of the next chapter were political, guarded and threatening; and it’s a real shame that we won’t get to see them come into their own in the next chapter.
Hilton is expert at creating strong character dynamics, and his political court for Richard II was no exception. Performed in the round, in the intimate low-ceilinged space of the Tobacco Factory’s upper room, audience attention was allowed to flit between the locus of power – a high throne at one end of the room – and the reactions of the courtiers, who stood about in groups. On the accusation against Mowbray of Gloucester’s death, for example, Richard Neale’s bearded Bagot urgently took David Collins’s Bushy by the shoulder and whispered in his ear, a clear hint that these men knew more than they were letting on. Cording’s Northumberland, with wry smile and firm eyes, watched his companions closely throughout, playing the assorted nobles for everything he could; while Roland Oliver’s grizzled York looked sadly at the destruction of the old order. In this formal and tightly-controlled court, human pain could often only be seen in the eyes.
This was also where some of the problems of this well-spoken but conservative production crept in. In focussing on the subtleties, the company left too much unsaid. This was particularly an issue in the case of Bagot, Bushy and Gareth Kennerley’s Green. While there were one or two hints of the sycophants’ delinquency – a better cut of cloth for their jerkins, a couple of whispered asides – they were played almost entirely as servants loyal to Richard. While it is true that recent productions have gone too far in playing up their lasciviousness, their homosexuality and their treachery, Hilton’s production gave no convincing justification for the animosity of the older lords towards the younger generation. Obedient and supportive of Richard, they had no apparent agency of their own; and the only time their characters particularly came through was in their defiance of their execution, delivered in a spirit of righteous nobility. So often a force of action in the play, here Richard’s three favourites seemed almost superfluous.
This was also apparent in their relationship with John Heffernan’s Richard. He showed no particular interest in them other than the occasional address of inappropriate remarks (particularly those immediately following Gaunt’s death); and was far more emotionally invested in Aumerle and Bullingbrooke. The production seemed further concerned to emphasise Richard’s heterosexuality, having him repeatedly take his Queen’s hand and kiss her passionately (though not hugely effectively) during his progress to prison. Ffion Jolly was rather disappointing in the role, flat and uninteresting, but was ably supported by Kate Kordel’s watchful Maid. The women’s scenes, like those with the favourites, felt largely superfluous – the Queen’s reaction to the Gardeners (played entirely straight, although with a mournful face when the Queen cursed their labour) had few ramifications beyond her own distress, and for the remainder of the play she was a mousy, unobtrusive presence, to the point where Richard’s passionate kiss seemed inappropriate and uncharacteristic.
Those were the production’s weaknesses, but they were perhaps inevitable in a reading that prioritised the ritual and formal ceremony of the medieval court. Played in period costume, Hilton’s company indulged fully in the trappings of the court, particularly in the long preparations for the duel between Bullingbrooke and Paul Currier’s Mowbray. In full chain mail, they received broadswords from the Marshal and Aumerle, and went through a series of displays of obsequience before Richard, sat on a high chair among the audience. They got as far as a first swing before Richard interrupted the ceremony, which deteriorated into a whispered emergency committee meeting.
Where the production lacked in emotion and characterisation, it made up for in spades with dignity. Currier, doubling Mowbray and Carlisle, brought a finely-nuanced delivery to both roles, warning ominously and almost weeping as the solitary Carlisle, surrounded by shocked nobles and causing Henry to pause with the crown halfway to his head. Benjamin Whitrow was a similarly impressive Gaunt, delivering his "sceptred isle" speech from a feeble body but with a commanding presence that rendered his words transcendental. The weight given to words characterised the whole production, with characters seemingly conscious of the significance of their actions in the annals of history. This was certainly the case with Paul Brendan’s Piers of Exton, who carefully considered and passed on what he believed were Henry’s wishes with a pleasure in the thought of his future fame. As these characters – Mowbray, Gaunt, Carlisle, Exton – were slowly disappointed in their hopes and expectations, one was close enough to see the loss of faith in their faces as they raised their eyes pleadingly to their king.
At the centre of all this was Heffernan as Richard. Tall and slim, he cut an elegant figure among the stockier lords. While not effete, his open manner and willingness to smile set him apart from the formal deference of his inferiors – at one point, the entire court were prostrated uncomfortably for several minutes before Richard noticed, laughed and waved casually to them to straighten up. Heffernan cleverly used the formality of the court as an extension of his own character, moving smoothly through the neatly ordered groups in clear command of their organisation, as if determined by him himself. Whether during the lists or standing on the battlements (here shown simply by a different quality of lighting at one end of the stage), he used the shapes of people and his own position to articulate a stance of power or submission that always served to keep attention on himself.
The greatest strengths of Heffernan’s performance, though, were in the quieter moments, accentuated by the intimacy of the theatre. The arrival from Ireland was a masterclass in the management of emotional projection, moving gradually from Richard’s joyful spreadeagling of himself on the floor to kiss English soil to a growing depression and despair. He slumped against a pillar, murmuring his sorrow almost inaudibly, as if all his energy had been drained by the news; and his companions knelt to share in his grief. Playing the scene very carefully, we followed the contours of his grief. Aumerle bolstered his spiritswith thoughts of York to a point where Richard was able to finally pull himself together and resume a confident smile; but Scroop’s subsequent news of York’s defection shattered him entirely. Oliver Millingham’s Aumerle was, throughout, a pillar of emotional support for the King. During the battlements scene, Richard’s desperation threatened to spill out of control as he barked down his offer of resignation with tears in his eyes. As Aumerle comforted him, Richard turned and took him by the head, and the two remained with heads bowed in a position of intimate support for some time. The strength of this connection made up for the weakness in the other favourites; the relationship with Aumerle bordered on the transgressive, and added a great deal to Richard’s character.
The dynamic between Richard and Bullingbrooke was also interesting. This Bullingbrooke was confident but not manipulative, an honourable man whose ambition only became apparent after Richard had already offered to abdicate. After Richard’s descent to the castle courtyard, Bullingbrooke knelt freely before Richard and continued a physical language of deference throughout. The abdication scene itself was powerfully realised by an indecisive and active Richard, now refusing to play by the rules of ceremony he had himself established. Henry and Northumberland (pleasingly scornful throughout) reacted with restrained impatience as Richard offered then refused to let go of his crown; and Henry himself let go in order to allow Richard’s monologue to run its course. Richard ascended his throne with the mirror, which he smashed several times with his fist in order to make the point. Later, in prison, he addressed the audience directly and pleadingly, looking for reason in his confinement. It was in Heffernan’s performance that the production found his heart, and he was never less than captivating.
Aside from Richard, however, the production was straight and tended towards the monotonous, relieved by some strong performances and occasional moments where the tone was altered. The Gardeners provided a variation of accent; the Groom (Roddy Peters) provided a moment of honest simplicity which touched Richard during his confinement; and the interlude with the Yorks provided some laughs, though was more significant for bringing into conflict Henry and Aumerle. In a lovely moment, after forgiving the transgressor, Henry snarled at him while departing; this was no magnanimous forgiveness, but a promise of future control. The pace of the production rose noticably towards the end, and Richard’s death happened in a kinetic whirl, his body falling to the floor covered in blood. In one of the few neatly inventive touches, he hurled the offered cup of wine into the face of the Keeper, who betrayed the fact it was poisoned as he furiously tried to prevent any going in his own mouth.
Austere and finely spoken, Hilton’s production read Richard II as a chamber piece, a solemn and ceremonial recital given heart by a wonderful central performance. While it would have been nice to see a more inventive approach, the company found the play’s power in the language and choreographed group scenes, and left its audience wanting more.
I noticed that Bushy whispered in Richard’s ear just before the King decided what ‘he’ had decided to do with Bullingbroke and Mowbray, so there was a suggestion that Bushy and his crew had direct influence that might generate resentment from the other nobles.
Doubling Gaunt and the Gardener neatly highlighted how both these choric roles use analogies from nature to provide honest accounts of the state of the nation.
Having King Henry remain on stage ruminating over the letter with the plot against him all throughout Exton’s discussion of Henry’s expressed wish to see Richard dead, showed the King to be insecure and his subsequent protest at Exton’s actions less credible.
I’m glad that SATTF managed to make such a good fist of their first history play, because it means that their subsequent histories will have to meet or exceed the standard set here. I just hope that setting the bar this high hasn’t made a rod for their back.