‘This dead king’: Richard II at the RST

This post contains spoilers: Richard II is still playing in Stratford, before transferring to London, so if you’re going to see it you might not want to read this post. This isn’t facetious, I want to talk about one moment in particular, which really seemed to surprise the audience.

RII

I want to ask, what is gained, and what is lost, when a production cuts text or interpolates new material? I’m not suggesting that modern productions shouldn’t make these kinds of change (indeed, the fact that the earliest texts of Richard II did not include the famous deposition scene helps to counter the erroneous idea that there is a stable text upon which all performances should be based) but I am interested in the sorts of effect that these changes create. Greg Doran’s production made one particularly striking change, worthy of further discussion: the decision to have Aumerle, one time ally and (the performance implied), intimate lover of Richard, kill the deposed king. In the performance I saw, and, so I hear, in many others, the revelation of Richard’s murderer resulted in audible gasps. Those who know the play well are likely to be particularly surprised that Aumerle, rather than Piers Exton, does the deed, but because Aumerle’s decision is not signposted (he makes no indication that he is going to commit murder) it could also come as a surprise to those less familiar with the play.

In addition to surprising its audience, this decision had other notable effects: it presented an act of personal, intimate betrayal rather than what might seem a more impersonal murder. Aumerle, who had earlier kissed Richard in a tender scene characterized by one of the production’s effective and distinctive uses of silence, literally stabbed the deposed king in the back. Richard is egregiously wronged: even if an audience is inclined to think that his deposition is necessary, it is peculiarly cruel for him to taste death at the hands of a loved one. Additionally, the subsequent banishment of Aumerle, a major character, in whom the audience has emotionally invested, not a peripheral figure like Exton, packs an unexpected punch. Yet, as well as pointing up the personal elements in the play, the decision also offered a political rationale for the murder: Aumerle, it seems, wanted to ingratiate himself with the new king, assuaging any lingering fears that he may harbour treasonous desires (in the previous scene, played comically, he was exonerated for his involvement in a conspiracy against Henry).

Yet while the production strove for a greater emotional impact, it unfortunately reduced the subtlety of the play’s politics. In the early texts of the play a short scene bridges the episode in which Aumerle is pardoned of treason and the scene in which Richard is killed. In it, Exton enters and explicitly reveals his plan to kill the king in order to curry favour with Henry. He specifically alludes to an offstage conversation, cited in Holinshed, (one of the sources of Shakespeare’s play), in which the new king asks ‘Have I no friend will rid me of this living fear?’ In other words, it is made evident that Henry has, if not actually ordered the murder, then at least given it tacit approval. Doran’s production omitted this short scene, presumably to maximise the shock value of Aumerle’s revelation, but in doing so it makes Henry a less interesting and ambiguous figure. If Henry is thought to be complicit in the murder he becomes strikingly like Richard, who, as the production cleverly emphasises, banishes a man for a murder he has seemingly authorised. These unsettling parallels are not exactly lost, but are made much less pronounced. Henry’s brilliantly equivocal response to the death: ‘I hate the murderer, love him murdered’  is robbed of some of its disturbing ambiguity.

Unfortunately, I felt that the omission of this scene served to drain more colour out of Bolingbroke. It is understandable that Bolingbroke might appear, next to the magnetic Richard, to be a more prosaic character, perhaps especially so when Richard is played by a famous and much heralded actor, such as David Tennant. Indeed, there is something to be said for presenting Bolingbroke as a comparatively ordinary man, not a sainted, magisterial figure, but simply a man who knows how to gain power, and how to use it. However, Bolingbroke can be played as a charismatic figure able to convince people to do what they might fear to do and to win their support: Richard notes that Bolingbroke courts the people and ‘did seem to dive into their hearts’. Nigel Lindsay’s Bolingbroke did not seem capable of this, but then, he may have been fighting a losing battle from the start. As the decision to have Exton kill Richard shows, the production was keen to maximise the emotional response to its central character and one of the effects of this was to reduce the complexity of Bolingbroke. Whether the risk pays off is a different question…

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