To accompany the RSC's King and Country cycle at the Barbican there has been a series of Q&A sessions about each of the plays (Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V) with actors who've played the lead roles. The sessions are recorded for the RSC archive and yesterday was the turn of Richard II with David Tennant, the RSC's current Richard and Jonathan Slinger who played the part in 2007. Emma Smith of Oxford University steered the discussion.
These are a few of the interesting points that came up.
On the context of doing the play as part of a series and how that informs the performance:
When David Tennant first played Richard II in 2013 it was a stand alone play but it is now being performed as the first of a tetralogy. He said that even though he's only in the first play he is now more aware of certain moments that cast forward to the later plays. There are moments that have extra frisson, for example Richard's warning that Northumberland has betrayed one King and will do so again. (He couldn't remember the lines at first to illustrate and chided himself as he'd only done the play before but when he did remember them got a round of applause. He later congratulated Jonathan on reciting lines easily nearly 10 years on).
David admitted that he'd never really understood the opening scene when he watched the play and that the audience of the time presumably knew the context that Gloucester had been murdered at Richard's instigation. The challenge was helping the modern audience understand and the light bulb moment came when they decided to set it at the funeral with Gloucester's coffin and the grieving Duchess centre stage.
Jonathan Slinger joked that, that idea was "knicked from us". They also had Gloucester's body in the middle of the stage which he had to step over. The 'ghost' of Gloucester then rose and "eyeballed" Mowbray before walking out.
Wigs and costume decisions
The production in 2007 was in traditional Elizabethan costume so Jonathan's Richard had white face, rouged lips and a ginger wig as well as costume. The idea, he said, was to represent the history of the time it the play was written - there was a plot to overthow Queen Elizabeth - but also Richard's vainglorious personality. As the play progressed his fineries start to disappear along with his power and his lack of self awareness. It finished with him wig and make-up less and in a simple white gown.
David has hair extensions and gold nail varnish which became a big talking point when it was first staged. He said they started with the fact that Richard was born to be King and had come to the throne as a child which must have been an unusual way of growing up. He wouldn't have had to conform to any sort of fashion because no one would have challenged him: "no one will say cut your bloody hair". If he wanted long hair he would have had it, if he wanted to gild his nails he would have. He added that the long hair then became useful later on for creating a Christ-like image together with the "white nightie".
Is Richard putting on a performance?
Jonathan thought of him as chronically insecure and therefore puts on a persona which at one challenge quickly crumbles. He thought of the final soliloquy in the prison as a sort of realisation that everything that had gone before was an act. He suddenly becomes self aware.
David believed that he is forced into a realisation when God doesn't come to help his 'anointed representative' and in the deposition scene he realises he has to fight his own battles and actually does it quite well. It is a personal and painful scene for Richard and Bolingbroke is the target for his wrath. The personal contact he has with Aumerle in the preceding scene, a rare moment of close interpersonal relationship, gives him the strength to do it and sets the scene for Henry IV's reign.
Jonathan went on to say that Richard was the son of the Black Prince who was a famous warrior, the Henry V of his day and perhaps he had impossible footsteps to follow in so perhaps he's trying to play a role that just isn't him. He can play the superficial elements of being King but little else. In the deposition scene he realises what he is losing, that he is nothing without the crown.
Richard II review 2007