Richard II at the Old Vic theatre, London. 12th November 2005.

Kate Wilkinson
Sheffield Hallam University

Wilkinson, Kate. "Review of Richard II at the Old Vic theatre, London. 12th November 2005." Early Modern Literary Studies 11.3 (January, 2006): 17.1-10 <URL:>.

Directed by Trevor Nunn. Set and Costume Design by Hildegard Bechtler. Lighting by Peter Mumford. With Kevin Spacey (Richard II), Julian Glover (John of Gaunt), Ben Miles (Henry Bolingbroke), Sean Baker (Thomas Mowbray), Peter Eyre (Duke of York), Oliver Kieran-Jones (Duke of Aumerle), Oliver Cotton (Earl of Northumberland), Steven Miller (Lord Ross this performance), David Weston (Lord Willoughby), Jack James (The Marshal), Genevieve O'Reilly (Queen Isabel), William Osborne (Sir William Bagot), Iain Mitchell (Sir John Bushy), David Collings (Sir Henry Green), David Leon (Harry Percy), Ciaran McIntyre (Lord Berkeley), Sean Baker (Earl of Salisbury), Sidney Livingstone (Bishop of Carlisle), Mark Tandy (Sir Stephen Scroop), Naomi Capron (Lady in Waiting), Lewis Barfoot (Lady in Waiting). All other parts by members of the company.
  1. Trevor Nunn's "aggressively modern" Richard II opened the Old Vic's 2005/2006 season as the first production of the year and the first Shakespeare at the Old Vic under the reign of Kevin Spacey as artistic director. It differed from other recent stagings in that it focused on the play as a modern political drama set in a recognisably twenty-first century Britain in the corridors of Whitehall.

  2. Although Nunn's was hailed as a modern production, the traditional opened it and the opposition of tradition and modernity was a framing theme. The production was set on Hildegard Bechtler's relatively sparse stage, which married the old with the modern consisting simply of white walls with dark wooden panelling. A single glass case in which the crown and purple ermine robe of the king were displayed was set centre stage at the opening. But for this case the stage was empty, and these opening visuals encouraged the sense of a museum: the casing of the robe created an impression of distant monarchy, something separate and untouchable, if not a dead relic from a bygone age. This impression was challenged as the case was opened at the beginning of the play in order for Richard to be robed and crowned, with Richard making simple movements to receive his objects of office. Pomp, ceremony and ritual characterised the opening: Richard was robed to the theme of Zadok the Priest; the lords in the first gage scene were also robed in the red ermine of the House of Lords; and a stilted manner of speech was used by Richard that indicated ritual, formality and detachment in his part in the proceedings.

  3. Despite the echoes of the old in the panelling, the white of the walls also gave the set a contemporary impression and enabled the stage to be abstract enough so as to literally create the many varied locations of the play. At times the sets for these scenes were very reminiscent of the House of Commons and therefore justified the use of antiquity, reflecting Britain's own use of tradition in politics back to the audience. Bechtler's set had many different levels formed by a number of walls which were either taken off or brought on and which closed the space down or opened it up. This created, for example, a large open space for Richard's return to England from Ireland and Isabella's scene in the garden, but also created a small space at the very front of the stage for the prison scene.

  4. Although the set for the gage scene was reminiscent of the Commons chamber, with dark wooden benches on either side of a wooden table and speaker's chair-throne, the tone was instantly modern with Mowbray and Bolingbroke, who wore dark suits, standing and sitting while throwing accusations across the floor much as in a parliamentary debate. Their angry and fast manner of speech contrasted very heavily with Richard's more deliberate manner. In this way, the opposition between the old and the new was established early on and formed the idea that the production was based around: the death of Richard's old fashioned, ritualistic, divine right method of rule against the more hands-on, in-touch-with-the-people approach of Bolingbroke.

  5. Nunn made extensive use of modern technology and media, and the production was fast-paced in the manner of a political thriller. This was helped by the omission of Act One, Scene Two so that the gage and warder scenes ran as one. Four television screens adorned the stage, with two large concert sized screens over the auditorium boxes to stage left and right; these helped to create a different level of meaning, showing the characters as twenty-first century political operators with manipulative power. For example, Gaunt's 'This England' speech was staged as a television recording which evidently got out of hand, but the recording was replayed on the big screens throughout the production as a means by which the population could be stirred up to revolt. As Bolingbroke's rebellion took hold this film was shown alongside footage of riots in the streets: two emotive and provocative images.

  6. Other key moments were also filmed and replayed throughout, including Bolingbroke's departure speech and Richard's grief at Flint Castle. This served to show a calculating side to Bolingbroke in particular, who had a cameraman at hand throughout his campaign and often spoke directly to the camera, suggesting that his sentiments were not always sincere. The use of camera footage to manipulate was most evident during the deposition, which was a direct reflection of the opening gage scene; however, this time Richard was not allowed to ascend his throne but forced to sit on a basic chair at the front of the stage, clutching the sides and looking rather small. Richard's request to be given the crown was striking in this context because of the memory of the commanding movements of the first scene, where he was simply handed the crown. Richard then took up the other symbols of monarchical power, the sceptre and orb, and sat on the throne in order to give them away. Spacey's speaking during this moment was disappointing at first. He entered the scene initially with a quiet and angry, yet controlled, grief; however, the lines of his abdication (204-215) were spoken in a straightforward manner with seeming ease, only finding obvious emotion as he said, "[w]ith mine own tears I wash away my balm". However, during the switch between Act Four, Scene One and Act Five, Scene One, this moment was replayed on the screen in a heavily edited version so that Richard's giving up of the throne was perceived through the television as a willing and happy abdication of his power.

  7. The spectacular nature of the play was intelligently staged. The deposition scene was evidence of this, mirroring the opening almost exactly, except for the absence of pomp. All wore suits now without robes, and Bolingbroke stood at the head of the table instead of Richard seated at the throne. This signalled a different governing approach in the character, but also hinted at the unease which the character felt in relation to the taking of the kingship. This double sense of meaning was also apparent as Bolingbroke took the sceptre but refused to wear the crown, again perhaps suggesting some guilt but also showing a different method to Richard's, one that was unconcerned with the pomp and glamour of the past and the position. That the very end of the production focussed on the image of the crown on top of Richard's coffin also had this impact: at a basic level there was the honouring of the dead king, but also the image, as presented at the beginning in the glass case, of the monarchy as a dead relic.

  8. Spacey's Richard displayed political savvy, and although slightly camp was not the effeminate, sexually ambiguous or even poetic character that Richard is often thought of as being. Spacey spoke with an English accent which was successful early in the play; however, it slipped during the second half and interestingly, though perhaps not intentionally, his accent was far more American and natural-sounding as Richard lost his kingship and became more at ease. Spacey's Richard was a bored monarch: although present at the gage scene he listened with disdain and the symbolic act of throwing down his warder (picking it up and dropping it onto the table) was performed dismissively. Spacey's strongest moment was Act Three, Scene Two in which he displayed a large range of emotions and moved between them convincingly, from hope and joy to shaken confidence, anger and finally grief. During the "death of kings" speech he forced his six followers to sit around him in a circle while he stood and spoke in a kind of madness. In this scene, Spacey's Richard began to understand his position far more than any other character, including Bolingbroke, who was visibly shocked during Flint Castle at the suggestion of moving on to London. Unfortunately Spacey did not seem to do much with Richard after this and his grief became a kind of witty, Hamlet-like madness.

  9. Other performances of note in the production were Ben Miles' confident Bolingbroke who was clearly out for the kingship from the gage scene; and Julian Glover's Gaunt whose prophecies became believable rather than mystical, as well as politically loaded and provocative through the many showings on the screens.

  10. The production was successful in reflecting British society back to the audience: a society that is concerned with sound bites and image, and is easily manipulated through technology by those in power.


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© 2006-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).