Rich in the rhetoric of role-playing, Richard II belies facile classification as a “history” play. Yet, because of its 1601 politically motivated revival by supporters of Essex’s hopeless rebellion against the Queen, and Elizabeth I’s seeing herself as threatened by the depiction of Richard’s abdication, it has acquired a politico-historical baggage. This baggage, I am happy to say, is largely jettisoned in the current QTC production.
Audiences who love elaborate, gaudy costumes may drool over the flowing robes of the King and some of his courtiers, especially the “caterpillars of the Commonwealth”, but for me the strength of Michael Gow’s production is its bold departure from romanticism and naturalism in favour of anachronism and a variant of Brechtian casualness in staging.
Designer Robert Kemp has spared us elaborate sets and gaudy drapes, leaving us to be confronted from the beginning by the rough old bricks of the Powerhouse walls, their nakedness enhanced by low-walled additions and offset by visible verticals of stage lighting (behind one of which the Queen hides in the delightfully non-representational Garden Scene).
The play’s portrayal of such issues as royalty, tyranny, overthrow of government, violence, family feuding and hypocrisy has unforced contemporary relevance but at its core is the humanising of Richard through humiliation and the shedding of his facade. The current cast of 13 sweeps us through the flood-plain of Richard’s image-laden self-projection and ultimate deposition to the salty delta of Bolingbroke’s power politics.
Early in the play Bryan Nason as Richard’s dying uncle, John of Gaunt, delivers the famous obsessively patriotic lament for the currently degraded condition of “this royal throne of kings”. Bryan takes this speech beyond rhetoric into genuine image-inlaid agony for the shames sweeping his loved land. As Gaunt’s brother York, Leo Wockner creates a bizarrely believable combination of integrity and vacillation, tested by conflicting loyalties. The vengeful bitterness of the widow of Gloucester grows beyond its original script into a sort of sister of Queen Margaret from Richard III as she broods and threatens and even takes part in the anti-Richard plotting.
Christopher Beckey’s indignant Mowbray (exiled early in tne play), Kellie Lazarus’s protesting Queen, Jason Klarwein’s student-rebel of an Aumerle, Roxanne McDonald’s courageously loyal (to her son) Duchess of York and Joss McWilliam’s bluntly assertive Northumberland combine to create a believable network of nobility enmeshed in political crises. Special mention must be made of the camp-gowned “caterpillars of the Commonwealth”, Bushy, Bagot and Green (Trenton Shipley, James Stewart and Lucas Stibbard), whose sucking-up and scavenging creates welcome comic relief and helps Richard escape his frigidly royal mask at times. Also, the three Ss (Shipley, Stewart and Stibbard) play plainer guys whose messages bring revealingly insightful responses from the major characters.
The dramatic core of the play is Richard’s sustained conflict with his cousin Bolingbroke. The casting of Eddy Segal as Richard and Paul Denny as his antagonist is fortuitous because it provides for maximum contrast of King and King-to-be.
Segal and Denny revel in the opportunities for contrast but nowhere are their images more sharply counterpointed than in the Deposition Scene where Richard, with marvellous theatricality, shatters his mirror image with desperate self-pity, then pitches to Bolingbroke:
Mark, silent king, the moral of this sport:
How soon my sorrow hath destroy’d my face.
Without even a Chekhovian pause, Bolingbroke replies with his exquisite put-down:
The shadow of your sorrow hath destroy’d
The shadow of your face.
To dare to speak in Stanislavski terms, one might say that the super-objective of the play is aligned with Richard’s discovery, stripped of his royal robes and thrown into prison, that the ultimate satisfaction is satisfaction with having nothing. In this regard, QTC’s staging of Richard II, not in the plush Optus but in the brick-bare Powerhouse, is deliciously appropriate. It is a courageous production, often deliberately untidy and non-literal. Richard’s descent from the crumbling brick walls via an old table is more moving than would be any choreographed balletic descent of a flight of sculptured steps. And in the last act his easy, stretched-legged watching of the final bubblings of the plot has a humanity which rubs out any suggestion of theatrical gimmickry.
Richard’s rapid oscillations from frustrated vanity to linguistic and even emotive majesty place great demands on any actor, but Segal is well on the road towards imaging the inner contradictions, in league with a cast well meeting the challenges, not only of individual roles but of testing doublings, such as Nason’s post-Gaunt anointing as a clerical prophet who looks at the other side of the spectrum from that seen by Gaunt.
The performances are true to the text. Indeed, where the text itself, in this comparatively early work, is “over the top”, the production has the courage to reflect a dash of vaudeville, as in the use of a comic brought-on doorway to reflect the plethora of knockings and entrances by the tensed-up York family trio. In Richard’s big prison soliloquy there is a requirement for music out-of-time. I had never imagined that the great contralto, Kathleen Ferrier, a singer of consummate musical discipline, could be put to service in this way.