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A CurtainUp Review
When the fallen Richard II is a prisoner in his cell, abandoned and alone, it is not Richard I see there, but all the fallen kings of this world; and not only all fallen kings, but also our beliefs and values, our unsanctified, corrupt and worn-out truths, the crumbling of civilizations, the march of destiny. When Richard II dies, it is really the death of all I hold most dear that I am watching; it is I who die with Richard. --Eugene Ionesco 1958
The real tragedy of Richard II is that he does not know how to live if he is not a king. Ralph Fiennes gives an unsympathetic portrait of Richard as a foolish king and yet by the end of the play, his considerable acting skill has convinced us that he is not a shallow man, but one of depth and sincerity. Ironically without his crown, he is now showing kingly qualities. Fiennes is an exemplary Richard II. He convinces both as a fop and in his coming of age, when we are surprised to find that we can relate to him. He is a superb interpreter of Shakespeare's verse. London sees many film stars turning to the stage, but Fiennes served a long stage apprenticeship before he accepted film roles. Here we see, not only can he break away from his rather reflective film roles, but evidence of his skill in commanding a large stage and making Shakespeare's words resonate.
At a cost of £2.3 million Alfred Hitchcock's Gainsborough Film Studio has been converted to seat 900 for 99 performances back to back of Shakespeare's Richard II and Coriolanus. It is a temporary venue and will be demolished in a few months time to make way for a block of canalside apartments. Even without the knowledge that The Lady Vanishes was made here, it is a most exciting venue, a huge space with a long and deep stage covered in real grass, and apple trees, so that it even smells like being in the open air. To the rear the brick has been hacked away to create an asymmetrical fracture in the wall which is lit from behind, increasing the dramatic impact of this shaft, a visual description of the dethroning of a king. As the audience arrive, figures walk in the shadows onstage, their long gowns trailing on the ground like ghostly figures from the past. A church bell sounds and we hear sacred singing.
Shakespeare's Richard II is a play about kingship, about the ten year old boy who became king when it should have been his father, Edward, the Black Prince, the hero of the battle of Crécy, of whom everyone had high hopes, but who died. The first half of the play shows us Richard's inadequacy in the role of king, the second, when deprived of his kingship, how Richard II earns our sympathy as a man who does not know how to be anything other than a king. When the play was written, it was very controversial because it was interpreted as encouraging the Earl of Essex's rebellion against Elizabeth I. Today it is still topical as the British monarchy faces increasing unpopularity.
The play opens with a dispute between the Duke of Norfolk and Richard's cousin Henry Bolingbroke. Richard is a weak king who surrounds himself with sycophantic courtiers. Unable to resolve the dispute, the king banishes both men. John of Gaunt, Bolingbroke's father dies with his son in exile and Richard confiscates their land to pay for the wars in Ireland. Bolingbroke returns to claim his inheritance while Richard is away. Bolingbroke takes Berkeley Castle, executes two of Richard's followers and eventually Richard has to relinquish his crown to Bolingbroke. Henry becomes King Henry IV. Richard is sent to the Tower of London and ultimately to Pontefract Castle in the far north where he is murdered.
Fiennes enters as a monarch. He is carried on while sitting on a white throne, clad in a white, embroidered coat. His queen, Isabel of Valois, (Emilia Fox) too looks the part, impassive and regal. Fiennes acts like a spoilt child, out of his depth and resorting to fooling around in a highly camp manner. He sticks his tongue out when visiting John of Gaunt (David Burke) on his death bed. The audience's reaction was to laugh, one I found somewhat incongruous.
In the second half, Fiennes expertly manages to make the shift to ensuring that he has our sympathy. When he suggests that he should sit on the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings, the "hollow crown" speech, it is a moment of great poignancy. Oliver Ford Davies is splendid at showing the confusion and conflict in his duty as the Duke of York, the last of Richard's uncles who as regent has to surrender the castle to Bolingbroke. With Barbara Jefford, in a rare moment of comedy, he tries to get his boots on and she tries to stop him in order that he should not take a document incriminating her son to the new king. Although there are other good performances, I think Fiennes is let down by two. His queen seems not to know how to play Shakespeare or maybe how to act in this large auditorium. She has no subtlety but careers between anger and despair like a woman unhinged. Also, the man playing Bolingbroke needs to put in a performance to match that of Fiennes in strength, and sadly Linus Roache seemed lacking in passion.
Jonathan Kent's direction gives us a dark play, lit low. He uses the magnificent expanse of stage to good effect. Richard II is one of Shakespeare's most cerebral plays. Its verse is poetic (e.g. the dying Duke of Lancaster's "This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle, this earth of majesty, this seat of Mars . . ."). Unfortunately there was much fidgetting among those audience members who came to see a film star and found themselves at a three and a quarter hour, uneventful play -- despite the attraction of seeing Ralph Fiennes give a performance to wonder at and in this beautiful setting.
For CurtainUp's reviews of other productions of this play: go here and here