||[Jul. 12th, 2014|06:57 pm]
So Tumblr has taken over my blogging life. Sorry.
Anyway, this essay I just wrote deserves a more permanent home than tumblr, so I'm crossposting it here:
I was also sleeping on and digesting Mark Rylance’s Richard II last night. First I had to go and watch extracts from the Whishaw and Tennant productions (Alas, the Jacobi and Pennington ones are at the library and I was Richardblogging from my bedroom at 3 AM) to get myself back into a proper Richardblogging mood.
I think that Rylance’s goofy Deposition scene could work very well if throughout the rest of the play he’d played a more serious interpretation of Richard. If he’d played him more like like Whishaw or Pennington (especially Pennington) then all the silliness would be intentional, it’d be Richard getting up and saying, to Bolingbroke, to the audience, to himself, to God, “This is preposterous. I cannot believe you are doing this. Aren’t you embarrassed? You should be embarrassed. Imagine God’s secondhand embarrassment right now.”; it’d be intentional, and it’d be scary, and it’d be effective. But because he played the character as a petulant and silly child all along, the deposition scene wasn’t a break from Richard’s character, it wasn’t a different take on the manipulative hysterics of the text, it was just the play being presented as a comedy. Isolated from the relentless silliness of Rylance’s take on the character, the burial pantomime at “‘God save King Henry’, unkinged Richard says, ‘and send him many years of sunshine days’” would have been chillingly effective. It would have been Richard saying “You are literally killing me. I hope you’re happy now. Do you think this is some kind of joke.”
One of the admittedly many reasons I like The Hollow Crown production so very very much (Whishaw Situation aside) is over the top histrionics during the deposition scene and Bolingbroke’s “done with your shit” face through it all. Whishaw’s Richard literally rolls around on the ground, there’s the famous crown-roll, he spreads his arms out and goes on and on about himself as king, he makes the scene about him, about what he wants, about what he thinks is his due (and of course it’s his due, he’s the king). But there’s nothing of the petulant toddler’s “look at me!” in Whishaw’s Richard. Whishaw’s Richard is not someone we encounter in everyday life, because Whishaw’s Richard is as much god as man (or boy).
Both Rylance and Whishaw as Richard manage to embody boyhood despite being very clearly grown men (Whishaw with his beard, Rylance with his receeding hairline). I think the part demands some of the innocence and vulnerability and invulnerability of childhood. Children think they are invulnerable, or at least they don’t understand vulnerability in a way that would let them contemplate that they might not be, but we know that they are some of the most vulnerable people there are, and Richard, no matter how you play him, carries this dissonance. We know that Richard is human like the rest of us, that he lives with bread, feels want, needs friends, and is ultimately subject to mortality, but until the beach scene this thought doesn’t even cross Richard’s mind. The way I understand Whishaw’s Richard, this crosses his mind for the very first time in all his 30-odd years on the beach, and he doesn’t fully process and internalise it until he’s talking at Aumerle at Flint Castle (for comparison, the way I see Tennant’s Richard, it all comes crashing in on him on the beach, it crosses his mind and he internalises it all at once; and Pennington’s Richard knew this all along and was keeping it secret and the beach is him admiring it to himself and others for the very first time — there’s nothing of the child in Pennington’s Richard). Whishaw puts this aspect of the character in a very positive light, it’s exactly that dissonance that evokes our pity and sympathy. Rylance’s Richard, though, comes across as all child, and spoilt child at that. None of the great topics, mortality and vulnerability and the godhood of kingship, are dealt with, so there’s nothing tremendous and emotional to react to or for Richard to process. Things don’t go his way and he panics and yells and throws things, that’s all I got from Rylance’s beach scene (though I really really like the staging idea of using the Groundlings as England, and would very like to see that in other productions). It’s worth pointing out again that Rylance’s Richard didn’t care that Bushy and Green are dead, he only cared when he thought they had betrayed them, and he wasn’t frightened that his friends had supposedly turned against them, he was only angry, like a child whose toy breaks. Some Richards are relieved to hear that they are dead, as tragic as it is for him to lose friends like that’d, he’d rather lose friends who are true and who die for him than have people abandon him. It’s selfish, but it’s the selfishness of a monarch or a god, not the selfishness of a child.
I think the grand difference between the two characters (because Whishaw’s and Rylance’s Richards are indeed two different characters, not two interpretations of the same character) comes down to the god thing (everything comes down to the god thing in Richard II). I mentioned in other posts that the Rylance production didn’t address the god thing and Rylance’s Richard is a boy who is treated as a god instead of a god who is a boy. Rylances Richard uses religious imagery in his aimless blathering, but it’s not serious, he doesn’t believe it, he’s just parroting something he’s been told. This is something we might expect from a nine year old king, but makes no sense from a 32 year old king who genuinely believes he is God’s deputy.
Also, the religious stuff in the play that comes from other quarters wasn’t given its due. Carlisle didn’t stand up and warn about seven plays of bad luck if you raise this house against this house, instead he just went through the motions. This could be imputed to a weak actor, but with all the other religious stuff swept under the rug, I think it was intentional. In a world where not even bishops genuinely believe in the power and attentiveness of God, of course it’s ridiculous for a king who thinks God is on his side.
It was like this production expected the audience to find the concept of a god king laughable, and instead of trying to demonstrate that in the world of the play it is indeed shocking to see god’s deputy dethroned, it just rolls with the expectations and changes the flavour of the play to suit the assumed audience. God kings, the intersection of godhood and kingship and martyrdom and homosexuality, and just what it means to usurp a king in what is essentially a theocracy were not things I’d ever thought about until I read Richard II, but since Shakespeare introduced me to those concepts I have really enjoyed contemplating them. These are topics very far removed from any of my own world or experience*. All this just to say that a production should not pander to what it thinks it’s audience expects, but should explain new subjects. (This is the same problem I used to have with children’s literature when I was a child; don’t talk down to your audience, never underestimate your audience, explain new things instead of assuming your readers don’t care or can’t understand). Plays that deal with serious concepts are supposed to expand one’s horizons, and avoiding the one aspect of the play that might be new to the audience doesn’t make it more accessible, it makes it a muddy mess. The thing about Richard II is that it is not an accessible play, it can be staged in such a way that the difficult topics are explicated, but glossing over the single most important theme makes the play less, not more, clear.
Rylance’s Richard II is almost an atheist’s Richard II, and I apologise to any atheists reading this, I’ve nothing against you, but Shakespeare’s play is the opposite of atheist.
If the play is to be taken seriously, and Richard is to look ridiculous to make the audience complicit with Bolingbroke et al (as Engrprof posits), then perhaps a framing device or staging decisions borrowed from theatre of the absurd would have helped this come across.
If Rylance was supposed to be playing not Richard himself, but Bolingbroke et al’s perception of Richard (my theory), a deliberate framing device to announce this would have helped and made the play one of those “here’s the baddy’s side of things” retellings instead of a frustrating caricature of a tragedy. Since neither of these approaches were made clear, though, I’m just going to have to continue not liking Rylance’s Richard at all.
I like the rest of the production, though. Whenever Richard wasn’t on stage I enjoyed everything immensely. I’m particularly fond of Bolingbroke and York and Mowbray and the Queen here. I want to re-watch all the queen’s bits a few more times and verbalise all the notions of gender presentation I’m picking up there, I have a lot of complex and muddy and vague thoughts on very good drag like that (not convincing drag, we’re obviously looking at a male bodied person dressed as a woman, but good, his acting is convincing enough that we forget his obvious masculinity) that I’d like to expound upon. And I adore angry and fiery York; I didn’t develop a particular interpretation of York when I first read the play, so all valid takes on York are equally my favourite; I’d go so far as to say that we have two best Yorks ever to York. And I need to do some re-watching, but this production might contain the best Mowbray ever to Mowbray.