Monday, September 26, 2005

Richard II, Old Vic - 24/09/05

Mulling over the performance we'd just seen, Mama Waits said what I'd just been thinking; namely, 'I feel a blog coming on, Anna'.

So, was it especially good, or especially bad?

Well, here's a subsequent conversation, having just discovered that the press/opening night isn't until October 3rd -
Mama Waits: But that means they'll have been previewing for weeks!
AnnaWaits: Well judging off last night, they need it.
Papa Waits: The need more than a few weeks to sort out those problems.

That'd be 'especially bad' then.

Ok, let's get the positives out of the way, first. Trevor Nunn's production was set in the present day, and there were certain aspects of how they used that which I thought worked pretty well. For example, Gaunt's famous 'this sceptre'd isle' speech was done infront of a camera and news reporter. Inevitably, this gives the impression that the speech was pre-prepared and therefore cheapens it. For some, this was no doubt seen as bordering on sacrilidge, but, for this production, I think it worked. We were meant to feel like everyone was performing for cameras, always putting a positive spin on their own cause. From then on, the speech was shown on large screens, edited and rearranged as if it were being used by Bolingbrook's followers as a justification of his war.

The second positive was Ben Miles' portrayal of Bolingbrook, but that's probably best discussed in relation to Kevin Spacey's Richard. So here goes. Spacey's portrayal of the king was far and away the worst thing about this production. Somehow, Kev and Trev had managed to make Richard II - the man, and therefore also the play - completely uninvolving (read - dull.) We literally had no idea why anyone would want to be one of his 'flatterers': he was uncharismatic, a poor speech maker (I know the words are still good, but they were delivered so flatly) and while they threw in a few attempts at showing Richard's fun side (he and his friends go to a club at one point)and his tendency to be childish (he throws the sceptre down when he gets bored of the Mowbray/Bolingbrook dispute), they were complete one-offs. The rest of the time, Kevin's Richard was barely there or just shoutily pissed off. When his followers defected to Bolingbrook, I felt sure it was more to do with the fact that they were a bit bored than that Richard had frittered all their money away.

What showed up Richard's want of character further was that Bolingbrook was a more involving character. Because Miles delivered his speeches so much better than Spacey, he seemed to be the one with wit and charisma, and came off as an all-round nice guy. Maybe that's what Nunn intended, and if so, I apologise for knocking such an unusual interpretation of the character. What I think they were trying to achieve was to give Bolingbrook a kind of Blair circa-1997 sheen and smarminess, but it didn't come off that way. In the end, we didn't feel sorry for Richard, or see that, while his fate was deserved, he still had that sparkle which allowed him to make us pity him. We just wanted to crown King Henry and be done with it.

Overall, the production did nothing to involve you because ultimately you didn't care. You have to want to hear Richard's speeches because that's all that's left of him. He didn't even have that to fall back on in this production. The whole thing made me once again be grateful that I've got the Crucible nearby. People were whooping and clapping (and giving a standing ovation to) Kevin as if he'd just delivered the performance of his life - for his sake I hope he hadn't. I'm not one who dislikes American actors coming over here, in fact I've always fought their corner, so this was pretty disappointing. Some might say that I shouldn't judge a preview as if it were a 'proper' performance, but if that were the case I shouldn't have been charged the 'proper' price for my ticket, either.

Quite glad I went really; I like a good rant.


Lisa Rullsenberg said...


Yeah, when you pay for a London show at those prices you really want something at its best.

Here's hoping it gets better. And as you say, regional theatre is brilliant at the moment.

David Duff said...

Anna, thanks for the nudge over on my site, although I had already read your review. I have been pondering, or festering, perhaps, on it ever since.

I am surprised at Trevor Nunn, normally a director who serves a writer - and that, of course, is the absolutely prime duty of any director. If it isn't, then one can only suggest that the director concerned goes off and writes his or her own play. I am uneasily aware of this as I approach work on my next production - Ibsen's "Ghosts" - because I loathe Ibsen and everything he stood for whilst admitting, through grinding teeth, that his play is superb. Thus, no matter what, I must try and make his themes clear to the audience.

This trickery with TV and video is becoming ubiquitous in theatre and needs to be handled with great care. I saw exactly the same interview technique that you describe, used in an amateur production of "King Lear" when his two wicked daughters read their flattering speeches to the camera at the beginning of the play. The director concerned forgot that one should always play Shakespeare as though it were the first performance. Thus it should not be signalled too early that Goneril and Regan are anything other than dutiful, indeed, it is Cordelia they should wonder about at the beginning.

Likewise with Gaunt's speech in 'RII', the use of TV instantly implies lies and deceit (as you shrewdly noticed) on the part of the speaker. To imply that on the part of Gaunt is a dis-service to the writer in that it goes entirely against the grain of the play. The great tetralogy of 'RII' and the 'Henries' is one long investigation by Shakespeare into the nature of kingship, and the internal stresses and strains when the personal and the political clash. It is Machiavelli's advice to "The Prince" acted out before our eyes.

Gaunt's speech is not merely elegiac patriotism, it serves to remind the audience that what these people are fighting over is meaningful and valuable, indeed, it's a jewel. On the personal it demonstrates the difference between old men's memories based on their firm belief that everything was better years ago (Oh dear, that's a bit close to home!), and the thrusting ambition of younger men to change things to their way.

Anyway, thanks for the review. I don't think I could face another turkey after "Twelfth Night", so I will give it a miss, stay at home, and compose another post extolling the virtues of English life in the '50s! (Groans from my regular reader!)

Mellie Bean said...

Disappointing to hear Mr. Spacey was not at his best for the performance. Maybe it was an off night? But your review sounds very measured and considered ... and as was said above - at London prices, you want the best damn production you can get to.

I am often suspicious of time-shifting things like Shakespeare, but the concept and use of the timeshift here sounds interesting in theory - although maybe not in the execution.

Hmmmm ...

good review, hon!

(Incidentally, we're trying a badgerboard experiment right now, I'd appreciate your input if you've the time and the inclination.)

AnnaWaits said...

Thanmks to one and all for your comments, it means a lot that you bothered to read my inital ravings. :-)

David, my dad really disliked what they did with Gaunt's speech, citing similiar reasons to you. I just think I was impressed that such a hallowed speech was treated as a piece of spin. Seemed kinda brave. However, on second thoughts, it would have actually been a whole lot better if it had been delivered straight and *then* cut, edited, twisted etc to support Bolingbrook's aim.

Ghosts is an excellent play, though I can't say I know it - or any Ibsen play for that matter - inside out. It made me cry like a baby at the end though....

David Duff said...

When you get round to studying Ibsen which you will undoubtedly do sooner or later, not least because he is considered to be the father of women's liberation, you might take a look at this detailed critique:

It approaches him from the philosophical, political and social side, rather than just theatrical, but it is, I think, a shrewd assessment of a great playwright and a total shit of a man!

By the way, I only have two and half readers on my site but I gave you a plug anyway.