“Sad Stories of the Death of Kings”: Richard II and Edward II, by Scena Mundi Theatre Company (https://www.scenamundi.co.uk) at the Church of St. Bartholomew the Great, London, 20 June 2015
Reviewed by Joseph F. Stephenson (Abilene Christian University, Texas)
According to the back of the programme for this event, Scena Mundi “celebrates classical European theatre . . . with a particular emphasis on the works of the Middle-Ages and early Renaissance.” The twin bill of Richard II and Edward II, united under the banner “Sad Tales of the Death of Kings,” gave the company’s artistic director (and the director of both these plays) Cecilia Dorland the chance to celebrate two premiere English dramatists of the 1590s. Dorland’s choice of these two plays fit very well with the recent revival of interest in history plays and in early modern authors other than Shakespeare, and the chance to see both of these related works in one day was a rare treat, featuring very fine performances in the beautiful setting of the Church of St. Bartholomew the Great.
The afternoon show on June 20 was Shakespeare’s tale of the fall of one monarch and the rise of another, Richard II. The performance began with a devised prologue in which two seasoned actors of the company—Graham Pountney (who played John of Gaunt and the Bishop of Carlisle) and Eluned Hawkins (who played the Duchesses of Gloucester and York)—recited the famous monologue beginning “For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground / And tell sad stories of the death of Kings” while the company assembled themselves for a periodesque dance. Although the music—and all the sound cues for the show—would have sounded much better on live instruments rather than played through a rather tinny sound system, it was an effective, intriguing start to the production.
Pip Brignall as Richard II used a combination of vulnerability and petulance in his first two scenes to keep the audience a bit off balance. The other characters judge him a less than competent monarch, but Brignall kept, or rather intensified, the audience’s sympathies as the play progressed. Meanwhile, Ben Higgins as Henry Bolingbroke effectively contrasted Richard’s indecision and long-winded speechifying with a taciturn masculinity, just as his stocky, muscular frame contrasted that of the tall, lissome Brignall. The production I attended featured Josh Pugh (borrowed from the cast of Edward II) to understudy three roles. While Pugh was believable as Mowbray and Exton, he was a bit too young to carry off the Duke of Northumberland, especially when matched with more experienced actors like Pountney as Gaunt and Rupert Bates as York.
The evening’s performance of Edward II featured a sort of role switching for two of the actors. Edward Fisher, who in Richard II had played the minor role of Green (as well as the substantial role of Aumerle), took on the title role in the Marlowe play. Green was a “follower” of Richard who is accused of having “misled” the king—indeed, of having “broke the possession of a royal bed.” This allusion to Richard II’s male companions having contributed to the unhappiness of his marriage is very subtle in Shakespeare’s history, but not so in Marlowe’s. Pip Brignall moved from afternoon king to evening “favorite”—unmistakably, a lover—of Edward II, the worldly-wise Gaveston. Fisher and Brignall really excelled in these challenging roles, bringing an element of tenderness to a relationship that is for one impractical and for the other opportunistic. Fisher kept us interested in this all-too-human monarch; Brignall, meanwhile, came back after the death of Gaveston to play the executioner Lightborne in a rather chilling choice of doubling by the director.
The visual aspects of both productions were impressive. Penny Rischmiller’s costumes evoked the medieval setting of Richard II quite effectively, with gold and black tones prevailing. In Edward II, however, Rischmiller and Dorland called up a more contemporary feeling—red leather, eye makeup, and piercings were evident—which worked quite well. Taken together, the two plays seemed to connect political machinations of times past with those of today: Dorland’s programme note mentions both the 1601 Essex Rebellion (during which Essex’s followers paid for a command performance or Richard II) and 2015’s general election in Great Britain. “The power of art,” Dorland states, is “not only to mirror, but to shape politics.” These two productions might warn politicians and voters alike not to trust too far.
A programme note mentions that the works Scena Mundi chooses can make special demands on actors, including a “special breathing technique for speaking verse.” Any special breathing going on was not obvious (and presumably it should not have been), but, since the note mentions the speaking of verse, I feel obliged to mention that some improvements could have been made in this area. First, there was no audible difference in the verse of the two plays. Marlowe’s thumping “mighty line” sounds different from Shakespeare’s more rounded blank verse—or it should. Indeed, Richard II is one of very few Shakespeare plays written entirely in verse, giving Scena Mundi a real chance to show off their skills. However, the verse lines in the Shakespeare tended to have an extra syllable or two (for want of elision), while the lines in the Marlowe were often lacking a syllable (due to unneeded elision or a lack of expansion). Nevertheless, the actors were—some more than others—actually speaking verse, a welcome and refreshing treat to the ear.
Perhaps the most unforgettable aspect of the productions—to take nothing away from Dorland and her fine troupe of actors—was the beautiful medieval stone Church of St. Bartholomew the Great. A statue of the tortured yet subtly eroticized Bartholomew greeted audience members allusively as they entered and exited. Both performances took place in the sanctuary of the church, with audience members facing each other seated in the same chairs used for worship services. The elongated space in the middle, then, was used effectively for character interaction, with the same throne set up on the altar for court scenes in both productions.
The use of similar staging and overlapping casts certainly called attention to the close relationship between these two plays. As Dorland’s programme note states, “the two plays are so full of echoes that there can be no doubt Shakespeare inspired himself from Marlowe’s work when he wrote Richard II—within a few months of Marlowe’s play being shown on the London stage.” The designation “a few months” is stretching it a bit, since Marlowe died in May of 1593 and Shakespeare’s play is dated quite firmly in 1595, but her point is still very true. Indeed, many look to Marlowe’s Edward II as a turning point in the development of the English history play. Not only Richard II, but the plays that follow it—the magnificent 1 and 2 Henry IV and Henry V—are different, and better, plays for Marlowe’s lingering influence. The very successful run of this double bill, featuring a more familiar and a less familiar play, should serve as an example for other companies. As recent seasons at Shakespeare’s Globe and the Royal Shakespeare Company indicate, the days of producing Shakespeare as the sole representative of Renaissance British drama are quickly waning. Audiences, please prepare to welcome a broader view of drama—even of history plays—in productions like “Sad Tales of the Death of Kings” from Scena Mundi.
 Martin Wiggins dates Edward II in early 1592, and there is no record of a revival performance before Richard II appeared in 1595. Edward II was indeed published in 1594, which is perhaps what Dorland was thinking of. See Wiggins, British Drama 1533-1642: A Catalogue. Vol. 3, entries 927 and 1002.