'Regime change' is the highly topical theme this year at Shakespeare's Globe and the annual season kicks off in style with Richard II, a perfect example of one order ceding to another. Sumptuously dressed in rich Elizabethan costume and presented in every respect as a traditional interpretation, an all-male cast echo the contemporary practice of men assuming female roles on stage. Yet for all this sense of historical period, the play fuses past and present perfectly, a lyrical study of the shifting sands of power retaining truly modern relevance even as the Globe musicians brandish trumpet, sackbut and flute.
The Globe's Mark Rylance plays the eponymous king. Beplumed and lavishly attired, his monarch is a mischevious, capricious figure whose political favours show whim rather than wisdom and whose callous indifference to the death of his uncle John of Gaunt has rarely been better conveyed. Rylance seems a natural for the melancholy king who gains in dramatic sympathy as the rudder of his kingdom swings in favour of the headstrong Bolingbroke. Only in deposition does Richard gain true majesty, suffering lending him perspicacity. In every way persuasive, Rylance is strongly supported, particularly by Liam Brennan's superb Bolingbroke and Bill Stewart's anguished Duke of York who's caught between the conflicting demands of duty and inclination.
Master of Play Tim Carroll directs fluidly and a strong cast do full justice to such a mellifluous play. On a wet and miserable May evening the sight of the colourful company performing a rousing dance at the play's conclusion send the audience happily on their way.
It’s a wonder Mark Rylance waited this long to bring Richard II to the Globe, for his special kind of self- searching acting seems perfectly suited to the title role. He may well have realised that the Globe, which has taken a few years to find its path through London’s theatrical labyrinth, was not yet ready for a play that makes some demands of historical awareness on its audience. But ready the Globe troupe is, under the direction of Tim Carroll, who last year brought the hugely successful all- male Twelfth Night to the South Bank. The purpose of an all-male production of Richard II is less clear, on the other hand, for this, unlike Twelfth Night, is not a play about gender dynamics and role-playing or cross-dressing. Carroll has, however, made Richard II a play about gender, almost inadvertently, and not merely by casting able male actors in the women’s roles. In Rylance’s Richard, Carroll has given the production a political leader of almost womanly dimensions -- a feat especially pertinent to a season the Globe has presciently dedicated to plays about the rather male topic of Regime Change.
Most productions contrast the Richard of the first half -- vain, vacillating, luxurious, irresponsible -- to the tragic and sympathetic figure who emerges from his fall and humiliation at the hands of his more politically able rival Bolingbroke. This production, however, gives from the start a Richard who is less than reprehensible, indeed quite endearing. Rylance’s king makes his entrance after the hunt -- admittedly for our age not a wholesome beginning - - almost without calling attention to himself. Throughout the play he exercises considerable restraint. Rather than highlight the king’s poor leadership in these early scenes, Rylance seems merely disengaged, musing, and introspective: in fact, the kind of political leader one may secretly wish for. He plays the role, from the start, almost as a sketch for Hamlet, and indeed we see strong resemblances to Rylance’s celebrated interpretations of that part here in the history play. With his gently pitched voice and mild movements, Rylance portrays Richard as a thoughtful soul who seems to have had the demands of heartless leadership thrust unwillingly upon him. Hence it does not fully make sense when the nobles and his uncle Gaunt so memorably denounce him for his reckless transforming of the realm into a pelting farm, for we have not seen much evidence of his neglect. Nor do we witness, as we do in most productions, his stagy antics upon his return from Ireland to find his land invaded and his throne at risk. Most actors have used this scene, with its cloying and self-indulgent invitation to sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings, as a set-piece for actorly histrionics. Rylance downplays this and all scenes that would seem to offer him the chance to let out all the stops and indulge himself fully in the ostentations of his craft. The result is unusual, but defensible and original: a consistent interpretation of a king who does not undergo a near-miraculous transformation in the second half of the play, but instead a figure whose adversities bring out his already glimpsed potential for self-inspection. Richard’s tragic catastrophe allows a prepared-for opportunity to rise to dignity and an awareness of his own limitations. Rylance’s is an amiable Richard throughout, whose unsuitability for the role of kingship grows to his greatest asset as he becomes a greater man. His final soliloquy in prison becomes a model exploration of mortality and lost chances, arising almost naturally out of traits witnessed earlier.
How, then, to square this interpretation of the part with the decision to cast men in the women’s roles? It cannot be argued that the Globe is thereby returning to its Elizabethan origins, for these actors are not adolescent boys, as they would have been in original Globe productions. Carroll uses cross-dressing, however, to explore public dimensions of gender, for the three major female parts (the queen, the Duchess of York, the Duchess of Gloucester) embody social roles women have traditionally performed: wife, mother, widow. To watch them played, and played well, by mature men is to highlight not just the era’s grave gender distinctions, but also to underline how closely Rylance’s Richard embodies women’s traditional traits. For unlike the male figures, who think and act self- servingly, publicly, and often brutally, the women -- and Richard himself -- show themselves to be humane and admirable. By having male actors portray these praiseworthy women characters, Carroll has drawn greater attention to the callousness and opportunism of all the male characters save Richard himself.
Hence it is something of a disappointment to find that Bolingbroke has been played so blandly. Most recent productions give us a political leader who, however politically effective and decisive, becomes a near-villain. In Liam Brennan’s handling of the role, though, we have no villain, no hero, indeed a character whose motivations are as difficult to discern as the origins of his accent. The unintended result is that we concentrate on usually minor characters. This production has assembled several skilled actors, most notably Bill Stewart as York and Chu Omambala as Aumerle and Richard Glaves as Green. Finally one should praise the extraordinary costumes the Globe has stitched together, with the finest materials and in a most convincing style of late Elizabethan England, from the glorious curly wigs to the slippery soles of the shoes.
Production photo by John Tramper
Notices from the popular press....
MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "Rylance is fascinating to watch." NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Rylance's Richard is defined by haughtiness and petulance, detachment and mocking wit." DOMINIC CAVENDISH for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "A glorious Richard II directed by Tim Carroll." IAN JOHNS for THE TIMES says, "Rylance takes an ineffectual character and dominates the stage with it."