Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Four Richards

The Four Richards

I kinda like English guys named Richard.

On the most facile, aesthetic level, I like a Leicester-born actor named Richard Armitage (who is in fact a bit of a Ricardian himself, and who admitted in a 2009 interview that The Sunne in Splendour was one of his favorite books).  His role in the BBC Robin Hood helped me become quite a fan of that show and even more interested in that period in history than I already was.  Through that, then, I turned to the first historical Richard, Coeur de Lion, “good King Richard,” and the book The Three Richards by Nigel Saul.

Why did Shakespeare never write a play about Richard I?  According to Michael Dobson, Shakespeare was attracted to write about crises of succession because he was living through one.  Richard I’s reign was unusual in many ways and passed, eventually, to his brother John.  However, this either doesn’t qualify as a crisis of accession, or the Renaissance idea of Richard I wasn’t sufficiently attractive, for in the other two Richards, Shakespeare paints very nuanced portraits.  Richard II and Richard III are deeply flawed individuals; the historical Richard I was, I believe, also deeply flawed but quite fascinating.  So it’s a shame Shakespeare didn’t have the time or inclination to follow the Plantagenet tree backwards (unlike Mike Walker, whose enjoyable radio epics on the Plantagenets and the Stuarts are among the best BBC Radio 4 has to offer). 

Richard III and Hamlet are my two favorite Shakespeare plays and, perhaps not coincidentally, the two longest.   I really love Richard III.  I completely fell in love with the villainous Richard as portrayed by Laurence Olivier in the 1955 film, the love of the damned for Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost, the one you love to hate and hate to love.  But I’m also very interested in the historical Richard and was quite excited and moved when they found his remains last year.  I was not disappointed to find out that he did have a spinal condition; somehow the pathos of the heroic (if you’re a Ricardian) historical Richard fighting and riding around on horseback despite what must have been intense pain and dying at 32 just makes me admire him more.  Recently on a trip to the Tower I insisted that Henry Tudor had the most to gain from killing the Princes. 

Richard II is less the out-and-out villain in Richard III nor is he the beloved Lionheart received in popular culture as gospel truth.  I remember reading the play for the first time nearly 10 years ago and feeling a great deal of pity for Richard II.  I’m a great practitioner of empathy, and trying to imagine what it must be like to be toppled from your birthright always seemed a pretty bitter fate for Richard II.  Dobson has argued that Shakespeare, in his portrayal, is saying that the taking of the throne by Henry Bolingbroke, later Henry IV, is justified because it gives us a Lancastrian and then Tudor dynasty:  the ends justify the means?  Helen Castor is also at pains to suggest to us that Richard II’s headstrong flouting of his uncle John of Gaunt’s advice, his taxation strategies, and his misuse of favorites contribute to the justification for his usurpation.  The ends justify the means?

The historical Richard III is censured (never mind the Shakespeare one, whose crimes are myriad) because it is widely believed he murdered his innocent nephews in attempting to secure his succession.  If the rest of his actions are not considered to be reprehensible in the great medieval field of war, then what makes Richard II, in choosing poor advisers and being an advocate for peace, and Richard III, no more bloodthirsty than your average Yorkist, bad kings and Richard I a good king?  As the play Richard II is at pains to point out, medieval kings were believed to be anointed by God.  Therefore, as Saul points out in The Three Richards, advisers and council were key to the reign of a medieval English king.  However, if the advice was poor, the King was not to blame—it was the advisers who were shunted off-stage.  I don’t know enough to comment on Richard I’s court, but I expect it was his own counsel that sent him off to the Crusades and in the meantime, led him to stage a revolt on Cyprus and have a whirlwind wedding to Berengaria of Navarre there, and to take incautious measures as regarded Leopold of Austria, which is perhaps why he ended up in Leopold’s dungeon.  However, none of this is ever regarded as Richard I’s “fault.”  As a stirring leader of men and no doubt a superb strategist and warrior, he was perhaps most like Shakespeare’s Henry V.  But the perception is that Richard I went it alone, without advisers, and very little is ever said of his rather stupid decision not to wear armor as he walks the battlements of a castle in France, which ultimately leads to his death. 

The Shakespeare Richard III, at least, keeps his own counsel, and even when he speaks to the audience, he’s putting on a performance.  Only in his nightmares is he really, perhaps, for a few moments, himself.  So his evil deeds can’t be shunted off to advisers; it wasn’t Buckingham who told Richard to bring down the Lancastrians.   Yet Richard I is deemed heroic, Richard III is deemed evil, and Richard II is seen as vain and easily swayed by hapless favorites (who get murdered anyway, not unlike all the Woodvilles in Richard III).  Moreover, both Richard I and Richard III were warlike.  Richard I was, as far as we can tell, more cultured; he came from a southern French background and therefore loved tourneys and troubadours.  Richard II was cultured and resplendent.  He was by far the best-dressed king of his era and extant portraits of him make him the most depicted English monarch before Henry VIII.  For whatever motives, the historical Richard II was not a war-mongerer.  He sued for peace.  What’s more, he loved Wife #1 and Wife #2.  That in appearance he was effeminate is well-known; what is less well-known is that when his remains were measured, he was found to have been over 6 foot and strongly built.  Moreover, it’s Richard I whom XX believes may have been bisexual, rather than Richard II.

So what makes a good king?  And what makes a good human being? 

I may not like the historical Richard III getting the bad rap or Shakespeare’s Bolingbroke getting away with ousting Richard II because the ends justified the means, but that isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy the play. 

David Tennant, is, by the way, over 6 ft, but there the physical resemblance to the historical Richard ends. The director (Gregory Doran), the designer (Stephen Brimson Lewis), and/or Tennant himself have decided to emphasize Richard's effeminacy by giving him long lustrous auburn locks that, coupled with Tennant's angular face and slight build, seems very strange at first. It made me wonder, in I, 4, as Richard was changing his raiments, if his favorites Bagot, Bushy, and Greene employed themselves at brushing his Rapunzel-like hair every night. I jest; it was also that scene, as Richard held out the long carpet of hair to change clothes, that I found it all rather sexy.

Nice clothes were important to the historical Richard, and the costumes here reflected that. The historical Richard's robes dazzled with gold and jewels, but the Tennant Richard, in I, 1, looked positively radiant in white. He had other memorable costume changes, wearing a light aquamarine in III, 2, and presaging the Sun King in a dazzling golden breastplate and shining crown as he literally ascended from heaven in III, 3.

See, see, King Richard doth himself appear,
As doth the blushing discontented sun
From out of the fiery portal of the East,
When her perceives the envious clouds are bent
To dim his glory and to stain the track
Of his bright passage to the occident.
Yet he looks like a king. (III, 3, 61-68)

It's no coincidence that all of these moments resonate as emotional highs. The opening scene of this play was unimaginably well-staged. A chorus of absolutely amazing a capella singers entered stage left from a level high above the stage and set the sonic stage for the medieval world. Trumpeters entered from the same level stage right. In the middle, Westminster Abbey—made of light, looking both luminous and substantive—appeared like a dream. The wafts of incense, however, were what did it for me (though apparently they caused the audience to all start coughing). This was time travel: we entered the medieval world in that scene.

The singers and trumpeters helped with further scene transitions. None of the other sets were as impressive as Westminster Abbey, but scudding clouds and blood-red moons did help to set the tone in the later acts. The dungeon cell in Pomfret Castle emerged from the bowels of the stage floor pretty impressively. Minimalism was the name of the game in III, 2, though this was easily one of the finest scenes. Like many parts of the play, it surprised me with its humor. In reading the text, I got very little sense of laughter in this play. However, having no doubt pored over this, the cast made every effort lighten the mood even a little by drawing our humor in unexpected places. The bittersweet quality of this scene, as Richard lands in Wales from Ireland to find out his country has crumbled beneath him, gives what Doran sees as the essence of Shakespeare: “a passport through life—a 360 degree view of what it is to be human.” Tennant acted beautifully here.

There was certainly a sense of a journey, from the Richard who began in Act I with a voice taken up half an octave higher than Tennant's normal voice, to his pawing, crawling, rocking, bewildered acting in III, 2. It was here, too, that this production decided to make its mark. Shenanigans with Bushy, Greene, and Bagot aside, Richard's cousin Aumerle is his solely loyal ally in the play. Cast as a young, attractive man (Oliver Rix), Aumerle's devotion to Richard and vice versa is explained—perhaps too easily—as mutual romantic/sexual love. What does their kiss mean to them?

The producers have decided to run with their idea, however, and symbolically conclude it by changing the identity of Richard's murderer from Sir Piers Exton to Aumerle, literally stabbing his best beloved in the back. I suppose this has more dramatic satisfaction than Exton, who had not yet even appeared in the play until V, 4. Unsurprisingly, Richard's scene in prison is very moving; his jailers not content with incarcerating him, they have also chained him up (though I mistook for the tune Richard hears for a mobile ring tone).

Sometimes am I king,
And then treasons make me wish myself a beggar,
And so I am. Then crushing penury
Persuades me I was better when a king . . . (V, 5, 32-35)

But to backtrack slightly. Probably the most dramatically satisfying scene was IV, 1, when Richard at last submits the crown to Bolingbroke. For me, it was hard to sympathize much with Bolingbroke, though he was well-played by Nigel Lindsay as quite a no-nonsense guy. This quite physical staging of the scene ended with Bolingbroke stepping upon and grinding to powder the glass Richard asked be brought to him. Tennant really used the stage, by then attired in a white robe and with bare feet, clearly evoking a martyr. Like all of Tennant's costumes, the cut was roughly historical but the fabric and the details were not, resulting in a not-unpleasant “no time or any time” feel.

Although, as most of the plays are, this was a man's play, there were some good if small roles for women. Marty Cruickshank brought desperately needed humor as the Duchess of York. Although the Duchess of Gloucester's speeches on paper seem quite beautiful, I don't remember much about the distingushed Jane Lapotaire's performance. Reading the Queen's speeches in print, I found her to be a very sad queen, prophesying doom but genuinely loving and standing by her husband. Emma Hamilton's performance filled her with a warmth I had not seen on the page. Her absolutely beautiful costumes, though subject to the same conditions as Richard's, underlined her role as regal but ultimately powerless consort to the ruler. The scene when the Queen is sent off to France was heartbreaking.

QUEEN: Banish us both, and send the king with me.
NORTHUMBERLAND: That were some love, but little policy.
QUEEN: Then whither he goes, thither let me go. (V, 1, 82-85)

Richard II is odd in some ways as its structure allows for very few of the clown scenes that you come to expect with Shakespeare. The only one that approaches this is the Gardener and the Servants, which even then is tinged with pathos; I thought Joshua Richards did a great job with this small but crucial role.

This was a very interesting and enjoyable play. Now I'm very curious to know how Tennant would play the other Richard, Richard III.

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