As in a theatre the eyes of men,
After a well-grac’d actor leaves the stage,
Are idly bent on him that enters next,
Thinking his prattle to be tedious;
Even so, or with much more contempt, men’s eyes
Did scowl on Richard.
Richard II, Act V, Scene II
Thus the Duke of York describes Bolingbroke’s triumphant entry into London with the deposed King Richard riding in his train. This is a playful inversion of the drama for me for, as far as I am concerned, the play is dominated by Richard, not Bolingbroke. It’s Richard my gaze is fixed on when he’s on the stage; when he leaves it my interest takes a little dip. Of course, I soon ascend from the dip: this is my favourite Shakespeare play. It’s fair to say, though, that for this play-goer if Richard isn’t up to the job the rest might as well not bother.
I’ve seen Fiona Shaw’s Richard, Kevin Spacey’s Richard, and a couple of other unfortunately unmemorable Richards. Now I’ve seen John Heffernan take on the role in a production by Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory (SATTF) in Bristol (8 March 2011) and have no hesitation in entering him into a trinity of sublime Richards with Shaw and Spacey. Heffernan played Richard like a king and like a man. Here was the anointed sovereign who thought himself guarded by angels, God’s representative on earth, something higher than mortals who “was not born to sue, but to command”. Here too was the defeated and deserted man, a mere mortal after all: “I live with bread like you, feel want,/Taste grief, need friends”. There was a wonderful clarity to Heffernan’s portrayal. You saw Richard in all his moods: cruel and capricious, haughty and humbled, raving against his fate and philosophising bleakly about the human condition.
SATTF have reinstated Shakespeare’s spelling and pronunciation of "Bullingbrooke" for the eighteenth century “Bolingbroke”. This gives, according to the programme, the twin sounds of “bull” and a running stream. These are, no doubt, metaphors one can make much of in relation to the usurping Duke of Lancaster. I, however, hear the word “bully” (“They well deserve to have/That know the strong’st and surest way to get”). He is marvellously played by Matthew Thomas, particularly after his success when he begins to realise that kingship might not be all it’s cracked up to be. He can no more get his quarrelling nobles to make up than Richard could; nor trust their oaths of loyalty any further than could the ousted king; his son is cavorting in the London brothels; and to top it all his carefully constructed façade of the legality of his reign is destroyed by Richard’s murder.
Seeds are, of course, sown for the wonderful plays that follow, but for me Richard II stands alone as one of Shakespeare’s most beautiful and profound works. I’ve never thought of it as a history play: it’s a poet’s play. The marvellous cast of SATTF brought out the poetry in every truly-spoken line, and with it the play’s psychological and spiritual depths. This fantastic production runs until 19 March 2011.
Richard II at Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory http://sattf.org.uk/index.php?id=164 (includes links to reviews).
The Guardian Review http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2011/feb/22/richard-ii-bristol-review
The British Theatre Guide http://www.britishtheatreguide.info/reviews/SATTFrichardii-rev.htm
The Stage http://www.thestage.co.uk/reviews/review.php/31314/richard-ii