Richard II at Shakespeare’s Globe (https://www.shakespearesglobe.com). The Globe Theatre, London, July 2015
Reviewed by Joseph F. Stephenson
As Andrew Gurr has written in the preface to the New Cambridge edition of the play, “Richard II is one of the most extraordinary of all the Shakespearean crown jewels,” though it has not been performed perhaps as much as most other contenders for that title. Recently, however, Britain has been blessed with an abundance of performances of this play, but none could outshine Simon Godwin’s powerful and energetic tour de force that played at the Globe during the summer and autumn of 2015. The production expertly communicated what Gurr calls “Shakespeare’s attempt to identify the human element in the politics of English monarchy.”
Godwin and designer Paul Wills had the audience enchanted before any actor stepped on stage or a word was spoken. Every surface of the playing space, including the stage floor, the back façade, the upper stage, the two huge pillars—as well as an additional cross-shaped extension of the stage and even a replica coronation chair—was covered in gold. Though this reviewer has never approved of the Globe’s recent predilection to add prostheses to the painstakingly reconstructed Globe stage and to disguise the beautiful façade and pillars for individual productions, the effect, in this case, was breathtaking. More importantly, the added playing space brought much of the action out into the midst of the theatregoers, and the actors did not shy away from that special feature of Globe productions: the ability to interact with the audience. Charles Edwards, in the title role, especially utilized the audience almost as another character, making prolonged eye contact and literally reaching out to audience members in a manner that betrayed his character’s insecurity and constant need for approval. The result—especially for this confirmed groundling—was a very immediate, very intimate event that one seldom or never experiences in a red velvet seat in a darkened house.
Godwin provided a brief prologue to the play, in which a child actor (credited as either Thomas Ashdown or Frederick Neilson) portrayed Richard of Bordeaux’s coronation, with the officiating bishop speaking the famous words, “Not all the water in the rough rude sea / Can wash the balm off from an anointed king.” Later when Edwards said these lines as the mature King Richard, he effectively communicated the mixture of personal and political tension that washed over his character as he remembered that moment from his childhood.
Indeed, the performance was full of examples of the tension between personal interests and political responsibilities. The adult King Richard, surrounded by his retinue of beautiful, effeminate courtiers, neglected good government, prompting John of Gaunt (William Gaunt, in a role he was clearly born to play) to blast the King with the stinging epithet “landlord of England.” However, that very speech also seemed motivated by Gaunt’s personal grudge against the King for having banished Gaunt’s son Henry Bolingbroke (David Sturzaker). Conversely, when the forceful Bolingbroke returned before his banishment had ended, he claimed to return “but for [his] own” inherited titles and property, but political forces seemed to impel him to “seize the crown” from his cousin Richard.
The tension between the personal and the political was most clearly seen in the family York when the Duke of York (William Chubb) discovered Aumerle (Graham Butler) was involved in a plot to kill Richard. York remained loyal to Richard, kneeling to beg the king to execute Aumerle—York’s own son. Shakespeare balanced this display of concern for the public good by having the Duchess of York (Sarah Woodward) kneel beside her husband to beg the King to spare her son’s life. Though the performances were great all around—especially Woodward—it was actually this York family business that revealed one of the few weaknesses of the production. Godwin (following other directors before him) chose to emphasize Aumerle’s tense position by giving him the unpleasant task (rather than Piers of Exton, as in Shakespeare’s text) of killing off Richard, in order to test Aumerle’s loyalty. However, Godwin kept Butler as Aumerle largely in the margins of the stage, so the decision to focus on his character during the last moments of the play came off as a bit contrived.
This is a play in which there are few truly minor characters, and the supporting cast excelled. Jonny Glynn as Northumberland and Oliver Boot as Mowbray/Welsh Captain/Carlisle shone perhaps especially brightly, but the entire cast delivered the text and action of the play with vigor, confidence, and urgency. Godwin evidently made good use of the Globe Associate for text Giles Block and text assistant Hannah Boland Moore, as the Bard’s lines were spoken in beautiful verse (and the play is entirely in verse), though the choice not to lengthen quite a few nine-syllable lines to ten by extension was perhaps regrettable. Thankfully, the cast uniformly said “Bowling-brook,” avoiding the modern-spelling-influenced temptation to say “broke” as the final syllable of the usurper’s name. A quintet of trombones and sackbuts, under the leadership of musical director Richard Henry, provided suitable and stirring music throughout. Handsome costumes by Joan Hughes were evocative of the medieval setting but not museum pieces. Lastly, carpenters Jon Batt, Ken Hayter, Rupert Mead, and Simeon Tachev should be credited for getting the complicated additions to the stage working and beautiful for each performance.
This production of Richard II was a dazzling success that utilized and adapted the Globe’s space and ambience to deliver an astonishing theatrical experience. Shakespeare’s text came alive as Edwards and the rest of this great cast spoke, allowing the audience to appreciate both the political content that intrigued Shakespeare’s 1595 audience and the personal touches that resonated more with audiences 420 years later. The bar for productions of this play has been raised.