Richard II has long been sort of an article of faith with me, as far as Shakespeare plays go. I devoutly believed that it could be great, even though I had never actually seen any live evidence– and indeed, several instances which seemed determined to prove that the play was just inherently quite slow and boring in spite of the beautiful poetry, or (in the case of DruidShakespeare’s marvelous adaptation) could only succeed if significantly trimmed down. But I should have foreseen that if anyone could prove otherwise, it would be the director of the hugely delightful Beaux’ Stratagem, Simon Godwin, who is clearly having a very productive year, given that he has also just opened a gorgeous (and in my case, faith-affirming) production of Richard II at the Globe.
I recently heard a director say that she has never produced Richard II because she works with an ensemble, and Richard II has nothing worthwhile for an actor besides the title role. This very often seems true; the major productions of the last few decades are inextricably paired with their lead actors: the Ben Whishaw Richard, the Fiona Shaw Richard, the David Tennant Richard. But Godwin has built his ensemble with performers so compelling, and allows every scene to fill with such engaging urgency, that for once the world of the play manage to expand beyond the long shadow of the King himself.
A world over which he has wholly cast the shadow of his own sunlight is, of course, just what Richard likes to imagine: crowned at ten years old (in a beautiful opening sequence alternately featuring Thomas Ashdown and Frederick Neilson as the child Richard), Richard has grown up to be a giddy, self-centered monarch, certain that his crown and power are his due by divine right and not things that must be upheld by steady rule, prudent spending, and politic dealings with his nobles.
Charles Edwards as Richard is everything this complex role demands: frivolity mixed with sensitivity, a dazzling intellect that only gradually begins to creep out from behind the facade of entitled delusion. His delicate Richard is compelling even at the height of his vanity, and amply fills out the tragic dimensions of the latter scenes. It is a sensitive, nuanced performance.
Swanning around a dazzling gilt set, surrounded by a quartet of high-voiced favorites in satin and brocade, the implications of his aesthetic are inescapable, though not (as in many productions) ever made explicit. Indeed, he and Anneika Rose present one of the warmer potential versions of Richard’s relationship to his Queen, with the textually nameless French princess (called Isabel, after Richard’s historical queen, in the program) proudly taking her place amongst the giggling, whispering cloud of courtiers until suddenly left bereft by Richard’s departure and her own abrupt loss of position.
Richard’s opposite and eventual rival is his cousin Henry Bolingbroke, a role that an article I read recently described as ‘completely thankless.’ But if this is its theatrical reputation, you wouldn’t know it to see David Sturzaker’s performance. His sharp, patient, and deeply feeling Bolingbroke defies the easy interpretations of his character as a quick-tempered proto-Hotspur or a ruthless Machiavellian climber. Godwin and Sturzaker suggest a Bolingbroke swept away in the strange current of shifting power that leads without any explanation from Bolingbroke publicly protesting he does not seek the crown, to Richard’s Queen overhearing by accident that her husband’s deposition is imminent. Where Richard is obsessed with pageantry, Sturzaker’s Bolingbroke is like a stage manager, continually delivering silent commands in the background through looks and gestures, a tendency which ultimately demands far closer attention from his subjects than Richard’s flamboyant performances ever did. But deep down, though it takes a quieter form, Bolingbroke is as determined as Richard that he end up the hero of his story, and movingly horrified when he realizes that that is not to be.
This production makes the play feel more than it ever has for me like the story of three families, three branches of the family tree descending from the oft-invoked King Edward III: his last two living sons, John of Gaunt and the Duke of York, now patriarchs with sons of their own; and the necessarily fatherless King Richard, whose recklessness, flanked by York and Gaunt’s steadiness, draws continual attention to the skipped generation of rulership, the king who never was. While this structure makes sense textually, it rarely feels alive in performance; that it manages to do so is thanks to the stand-out performances of William Gaunt as Bolingbroke’s father John of Gaunt (yes, really), William Chubb as a scene-stealingly sarcastic and endearing Duke of York, and Graham Butler as his increasingly unsteady son Aumerle, Richard’s cousin and confidant, who seems to be an almost unwilling survivor of Richard’s fall. Sarah Woodward and Sasha Waddell also deserve mention for their refreshing interpretations of the Duchesses of York and Gloucester respectively, and for making so much of the little they are given. This is not a play that is very kind to actresses.
In his famous speech in the penultimate scene of the play, the lonely, imprisoned Richard tries to ‘people this little world’ with his imagination. Very often, this is how the play itself feels: faintly drawn characters fluttering around Richard, who is himself the only real, full person onstage. But Godwin’s vision is more expansive– more history play than tragedy, many people’s stories rather than just the one. The result is a boisterous, generous production that is not afraid of letting laughter butt right up against tragic sincerity, or of letting other characters become as important as the lead, or of letting the sad story of the death of kings be genuinely enjoyable, too.