Thursday, March 31, 2016

King And Country: Richard II, or, How To Set The Tone

If you want it, here it is--come and get it.

Plays are verbal music, with the added bonus (or burden) of silence as a note all its own. Most plays begin by setting the tone for what will follow. But when a play begins with a speech from the one guy who is always the wrong note in the chorus, unless you know what everyone else is supposed to be singing, the wrongness of this guy isn’t clear from the start—because you hear it first, you judge everything that you hear, from then on, as either off-key or harmony, and only after a while does the realization creep up on you that the note you started with, the one you took as your starting point the way an orchestra takes concert pitch from the first violin, is wrong—all wrong.  

That’s the challenge of doing Dickie Double. Richard has the first lines in the play. So if you don’t set the tone—if you don’t let the audience know where Richard stands in relation to the rest of the play’s world—then they will spend the first half hour of the play getting their footing, instead of being grounded immediately. If watching a play is like climbing a set of stairs, where you always know where you stand and always trust where you’re going, then the opening of Richard II is like standing on a warped bottom step, subconsciously shifting your balance so that it feels level, and then, as you climb, being forced to adjust your balance until you realize that it’s not the staircase that’s out of whack, but just that first step. It’s incredibly disorienting. (It’s also a great example of how, when a writer cuts to the chase because he trusts that a contemporary audience knows what’s going on without being told, it works brilliantly. But only for that audience. Modern playwrights who lean on 21st Century topical references, take note.)  

This production solves that problem brilliantly.  The audience walks in on a set that shows a casket lying in the middle of an empty church. With the house lights only dimming to half, an old woman enters. In a gallery above, three sopranos begin to sing Latin funeral songs. The old woman drapes herself over the casket, and for the next six minutes, that’s all you get: the casket, the mourner, and the music. At the end of which, after other mourners (mostly male) have drifted in and offered silent support, David Tennant’s Richard bounces onstage, and speaks the first lines of the play. And the audience immediately— thanks to the jarring effect of having this bubble of silence and mourning pricked and needled by Richard’s flighty now-now-now’s—immediately knows that this guy is a total jerk, an opinion which is confirmed by the embarrassed way his Queen and her attendants hang back from him, like they’re saying “We don’t really know this fool, honest.”  

And we’re off and running with the best production of Dickie Double that I have ever seen. That opening colors everything so well that, when John of Gaunt dies, and Richard sails on and snaps up his lands and estates, it offends our decency, because we’ve seen what decency is. Director Gregory Doran does everything so right that he even gets away with dressing up Tennant to look like he’s Christ: long hair, bare feet, floor-length white one-piece robe. In the first half it’s affectation; in the second half it’s a one-to-one correspondence, with Richard’s farewell scene with his Queen played like a brief interruption on the way to Golgotha, and his reveal in prison complete with chains that pull his arms akimbo like he’s being crucified. 

There’s a lot of playfulness with the crown (a motif that will be repeated during the next three plays); there’s a briskness to the staging and the acting that totally trusts the audience as it reassures them; and there’s a lot of nice touches with Aumerle, who has in this version an arc which is not in the original—and a shared-kiss love relationship with Richard. The only real flaw in this precious ointment is Jane Lapotaire, who plays the Duchess of Gloucester, the old woman who opens the play draped over that casket. She has a great many lines during that opening scene, all of which are distinctly audible to the first two rows of the audience and reach the ears of the rest of us with all the clarity of a speakerphone conversation three blocks away. Even the oldsters with their assistive listening devices hear nothing louder than a distant mutter, and boy are they pissed. 

As for Tennant, his Richard is brilliant: he’s flighty, mercurial, self-obsessed, and annoying in the first half; and without changing a single one of his mannerisms or line deliveries, he is serious, focused, objective, and charming in the second half. The same qualities which make him the kind of king who needs replacing make him a great ex-king (which, given the religious angle in which this is presented, is like saying that sometimes it’s the worst priest who makes the best martyr). Richard goes from being vain and disgraceful to being the voice of decency, which is the hallmark of this script. Without changing anything in his main character, Shakespeare makes you see him one way when he’s in power and a completely different way when he isn’t. That’s genius, and this production rises to it.



R. Vincent Park said...

Sorry I missed this one... Did you see all four? I saw Henry 4, one and two.... also missed Henry 5 ... loved your review . Somehow I need to figure out a way to stop laughing when you say things like, "She has a great many lines during that opening scene, all of which are distinctly audible to the first two rows of the audience and reach the ears of the rest of us with all the clarity of a speakerphone conversation three blocks away."

Horvendile said...

Yes, I did see all 4, in order. The other three reviews are in various stages of completion; since I have no social life at the moment, I hope to have them done in the next couple of days. :-)