Monday, June 09, 2014

The New British Richard II

Chez Underbelly (or is it Chez Buce? I forget) rounded off its evening after the New Year's Cantatas last night with acts four and five of Shakespeare's Richard II, as presented in The Hollow Crown, the new British rendering of the playwright's "Lancaster" trilogy.   It's a creditable job on what I've long thought a fascinating play.  A bit ham-handed in its attenuation of Christian symbols (does he really need to spread his arms out as if crucified?  Does he really need to ride in on the mule?).  The selection of geographic locales was imaginatively done--amazing what you can do when you are freed from the theatre, if you don't screw it up, which often enough they do.

What has long fascinated me about Richard II is not that it is Shakespeare at the top of his game--it's not--but that it is Shakespeare trying to figure out who he is, trying to negotiate a fully mature identity out of his newly-discovered (and no doubt hitherto unsuspected) talent for writing world-class verse.  Recall the chronology: this is 1595, when the the theaters reopened after an extended closure due to plague.  It was probably during the closure that Shakespeare discovered his power as a sonneteer, but that's the thing: Shakespeare's honeyed sonnets, somebody called them, and it is not quite a compliment.  Few if any of the sonnets are awful; not many are really bad and a few are brilliant. But a lot, however fluent, are a bit too cute, too clever--one might almost say "too honeyed," if somebody hadn't said it before.

Back in the theatre, Shakespeare has to figure out what to do with his new-found power.  I think it was Peter Saccio who said that when he first read some of Richard's set-piece speeches, they almost blew the top of his head off.  But it was when he saw them in context, he saw them in a whole new dimension: here is Richard, a fine poet in his way, but precisely because he is so fine a poet, thus fatally  ill-equipped to be a good king.  King, hah: Richard is the original drama queen, who dazzles with his eloquence, all the time disclosing that he won't be able to get out of this mess alive.  It's an amazing piece of work and enough to convince you, despite its imperfections, that here is a still-young man of whom great things can be expected. 

As an aside, he plays another version of the same game in Romeo and Juliet, apparently written the same year.  Few can versify with such eloquence as young Montague (well, perhaps Richard can). But again, that's his curse:  For Romeo it's all about words, and his tragedy that he doesn't know it is all about words.  So in both plays, it is Shakespeare's peculiar gift to explore, to exhibit, and yet to criticize, almost to mock, the very gift that obviously so astonishes him.

Re Saccio's point, I can relate: I first heard the Richard set-pieces in an old vinyl recording of John Gielgud's one-man presentation, "Ages of Man." It was only a few years later that I actually got round to reading the play (I didn't actually see it until much later still).   And I learned only recently how his early casting as Richard was a breakthrough role for Gielgud, and also for the king himself: how Gielgud's performance restored the play to the conversation after long periods of neglect.

I can believe it.  One reason why I can believe it is that last night watching the new production--worthy though it was--the voice I kept hearing was that of the old man himself.

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