Saturday, July 12, 2008

Richard II - Performance Log (July 2008)

Sometimes the stars align; I was able to see a performance of Richard II just as we begin reading 1 Henry IV. For me, Richard II is a lifer, meaning it’s a play I’ve never seen on stage before. (I have about 10 to go, including most of the usual suspects – Timon, Coriolanus, Cymbelline, Troilus, Henry VIII. Does anyone ever do Henry VIII?)

Richard II
Shakespeare & Company
Directed by George M. Roesler
Century College Outdoor Theatre Complex
White Bear Lake, MN
July 5, 2008

1. The Faces of Richard: When we read Richard II last year, I came away with the impression that Richard is all of a piece – a poet king, lyrical but milquetoasty. Perhaps my reading was colored by remembrance of Derek Jacobi’s solid performance for the televised BBC series (1978), which gave the character some consistency that, as I reviewed the text prior to seeing Shakespeare & Company's production, is not so obvious in the text. Or perhaps I just didn't read the play very well.

Upon rereading, I believe we find a more chameleonic Richard in Shakespeare's account. Certainly, a historical figure is more difficult to reconcile in a narrative than a fictional one, human nature being erratic. To the fictional, authors can apply coherence where necessary, and we are about to discuss some history plays in which I think Shakespeare succeeds in doing the same with the historical Henry IV and Hal. In Richard II, however, Shakespeare seems disinterested in establishing a connection between or glossing over the king’s different facets.

We get a Machiavellian Richard, the plotter of the assassination of Gloucester. Richard never admits this in the play, but Gaunt fingers him, rebuffing his wife’s desire for vengeance against the assassin by saying:

“God’s is the quarrel; for God’s substitute,
His deputy anointed in His sight,
Hath caused his death, the which if wrongfully,
Let heaven revenge, for I may never lift
An angry arm against His minister.” (1.2.37-41)

Why Richard has had Gloucester rubbed out isn’t discussed, but the opening scene of Richard II, in which Bolingbroke accuses Mowbray (“he did plot the Duke of Gloucester’s death”) becomes politically intriguing when a scene later we learn that Richard, who was adjudicating in scene 1, must have known who was lying and who was truthful, and banished both men anyway. Certainly, he has chosen a politically expedient path, and the “appeals” of both men against the other are something of a sham. Do we see this shrewd political animal again in the play? Not really.

Rather, we get a more obtuse, avaricious Richard. In Act 1, scene 4, upon hearing of Gaunt’s illness, Richard responds:

“Now put it, God, in the physician’s mind
To help him to his grave immediately!
The lining of his coffers shall make coats
To deck our soldiers for these Irish wars.
Come, gentlemen, let’s all go visit him:
Pray God we may make haste, and come too late!” (1.4.59-64)

Okay. It at least appears pragmatic, even if it’s a tad crass to desire the immediate death of one’s uncle in order to pay for war in a time of growing deficit. But it doesn’t take the Duke of York long to point out the illogic of the plan, when Gaunt subsequently dies. After Richard seizes Gaunt’s property, York prophetically warns him “You pluck a thousand dangers on your head,/ You lose a thousand well-disposèd hearts” (2.1.206-207). So, what happened to the king who neatly eliminated risks to his power by trapping them into exile? Well, he foolishly just gave one of them reason to come back and challenge him.

And when Bolingbroke does return, we get the ineffectual, coward Richard. One of the most shocking moments in the play, for me, is in Act 3, scene 3. Bolingbroke sends Northumberland to Richard, holed up in Flint Castle, to tell him:

“Henry Bolingbroke
On both his knees doth kiss King Richard’s hand,
And sends allegiance and true faith of heart
To his most royal person; hither come
Even at his feet to lay my arms and power,
Provided that my banishment repealed,
And lands restored again be freely granted.” (3.3.34-40)

Richard’s response is abdication, essentially: “Stop kissing the ground; here take my crown.” Weird. Yes, it’s historical. Bolingbroke does usurp the throne. But Shakespeare shows us little of his ambition in the earlier scenes; he sounds sincere about supporting Richard as long as his rights are restored. Gil made a very eloquent argument when we covered the play that Northumberland’s request (“May it please you to come down”) amounts to what Gil calls “a huge movement” and can be metaphorically seen as the deposition. Sure. And Ernst pointed out the play’s ability “to lay open the disconnect between politicians’ words and their actions.” But in both cases we get words first, then radical (historical, but narratively unexpected) actions follow. And the disconnect isn’t explored.

So, I think it’s easy to chalk all this up to some gutlessness on Richard’s part, a characteristic we see earlier when he quails upon hearing of Bolingbroke’s growing strength and the deaths of Bushy, Bagot, and the Earl of Wiltshire. Bolingbroke arrives, and Richard coughs up the crown at the sight of him, ostensibly unasked.

Finally, we get the poetic Richard, the speaker of:

“Then crushing penury
Persuades me I was better when a king.
Then I am kinged again and, by and by,
Think that I am unkinged by Bolingbroke,
And straight am nothing. But whate’er I be,
Nor I, nor any man that but man is,
With nothing shall be pleased, till he be eased
With being nothing.” (5.5.34-41)

Existential, philosophical, introspective, articulate – all qualities he lacks in his avaricious mode and which he buries in petulance in his coward mode. In the end I have a new appreciation for this character, Richard, but I yearn for a director and an actor who can pull these disparate qualities together and make sense of them, one who can find a line to connect their far-flung dots.

2. Portrait of the King as a Young Man: How does an actor handle a difficult and complex role of this nature? In George Roesler's production for Shakespeare & Company, Lucas Gerstner as Richard hops from one to the other without much transition. But there’s an element of the callow to him throughout the production. He can sit on the steps with his flatterers and diss Gaunt with a smile, a sort of brash disrespect for one’s elders. He can crumble in the face of ill news and Bolingbroke’s approaching power, a dissipation of courage originally based not on prowess but rash overconfidence. He can wax poetic about the loss of his crown, dashing a looking glass to the floor and trading melancholy bon mots (“Say that again. ‘The shadow of my sorrow’?”) with Henry IV, a newly minted wisdom born of recent loss.

So Gerstner’s Richard is a youthful one, belying a bit the historical scope of the play, kind of a Plantagenet That Was the Week That Was. I wished for a bit more maturity in the role and depth to the character; but for an audience unfamiliar with British monarchical history and probably Shakespeare’s Richard II as well, the adolescent vibe is engaging.

3. Death Speaks. A nice touch in this production is Roesler’s adding both a prologue and an epilogue to the play as a way of helping the audience a bit with its sense of history. The prologue seemed to be cadged together from the prologue for Henry V (“O, for a muse of fire”) and 2 Henry VI (“Edward the Black Prince died before his father,/ And left behind him Richard, his only son”). I’ve seen this technique used before, and I think it works especially well with the sequential history plays and an American audience’s understandable ignorance.

Jordan Klitzke delivers the prologue, but independent of any particular role in the play. He doesn’t get up there as, say, Gaunt. The epilogue, on the other hand, is delivered by Death. Death, a tall figure swathed in a black robe, appears throughout the play as a physical portrayal of the doom that hangs over Richard’s reign. And Roesler avoids easy metaphor, putting him into an unexpected scene here and there, which encourages the audience to connect the moment with the larger course of history. Why, for example, would Death be strolling through the Queen Isabel and the gardeners scene? Either he’s calling attention to the Gardener’s not so veiled allegory (“I will go root away/ The noisome weeds which without profit suck/ The soil’s fertility from wholesome flowers”) or the topiary’s time is up.

So, Death arrives, after Richard’s murder and Bolingbroke’s speech lamenting his death, and taking lines largely (I may have missed a source) from 1 Henry IV, brings an ironic closure to the play:

“No more the thirsty entrance of this soil
Shall daub her lips with her own children’s blood.
No more shall trenching war channel her fields,
Nor bruise her flow’rets with the armed hoofs
Of hostile paces.”

This is ironic for two reasons. First, the lines are Henry’s and they turn out to be overly optimistic, not only within the action of 1 Henry IV but with the War of the Roses on the horizon far beyond as well. Second, the epilogue is spoken by Death! It’s a bit weird to have the prophecy of lasting peace spoken by a character who benefits from, and throughout the play has been a specter of, the fruits of war and civil unrest.

4. Who Killed Richard? Death’s appearance as epilogue is not the only time in the play Roesler makes an interesting casting choice. With a small cast, it’s difficult to fill every character’s role in the play. Hence we have Bushy and Green but not Bagot, and the poor Gardener has only one apprentice, and there’s no Exton. This last may seem inconsequential, but it is Exton (“I am the King’s friend, and will rid his foe”) who does in Richard. In his place, Roesler taps … Hotspur (Jordan Klitzke). He even changes Henry’s lines in Act 5, scene 6 (from “Exton, I thank thee not” to “Harry, I thank thee not”) to call attention to the change.

Let’s consider for a moment what this change implies. In the next play Hotspur will be Hal’s foil, all honor, chivalry, and, as Gil has said, “romantic self-delusion.” Can such a character speak these lines?

“As full of valor as of royal blood!
Both have I now spilled. O, would the deed were good!
For now the devil that told me I did well
Says that this deed is chronicled in hell.” (5.5.113-116)

These lack a sense of honor and temperament that will be consistent in Hotspur in the next play. And there’s a certain toadiness to Exton’s initial interpretation of Henry’s words that Hotspur also lacks. Now on their own Richard II and the switch of characters withstand such criticism. If you’re headed home to American Idol after Death speaks the epilogue and unlikely to take in 1 Henry IV any time soon, who cares if Hotspur plays social-climbing assassin here? And Henry’s rebuke of him could certainly play into Hotspur’s realigning himself in the next play. But for those who consider this play as part of Shakespeare’s second history tetrology, it brings up an interesting continuity question.

A question, I might add, we could ask a guy who told me other day that he’s considering directing 1 Henry IV for Shakespeare & Company next year: Stu Naber. If you scroll back up to the top of this entry and look at the attached picture, Stu is the guy on the right playing Thomas Mowbray. He’s also a fellow Carleton grad. And he’s also the newest member of the William Shakespeare Experience. I welcome Stu now and hope, as we head into 1 Henry IV soon, that he can help us with those interesting questions that arise in the territory between play and production, and whatever else piques his fancy.

Logged by Randall

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