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RSC Richard II cast read Thomas of Woodstock and the back stage tour

PhotoLove a rehearsed reading me and this one - Thomas of Woodstock - was born out of homework the cast of the RSC's Richard II production, were given during rehearsals.

Unfinished and with its author unidentified, Thomas of Woodstock is often called Richard II part I as it focuses on the early part of his reign. It was read by the cast during preparations for Richard II, to help put the latter in context.

Assistant director Owen Horsley was then given the task of trimming the text down and directing this rehearsed reading with some of the cast (see cast list on the right, click for bigger version).

Although tonally different it does set up the Shakespeare play superbly. It was also the most polished rehearsed reading I've seen, including some specially written music by soprano Anna Bolton who performed with Helena Raeburn. The actors made entrances and exits, swapped seats or sat on the stage and generally moved around more than you'd expect from a rehearsed reading. 

So, in Thomas of Woodstock there is much that helps to explain Richard's behaviour in Richard II, the latter picking up the story just after Woodstock's death or the Duke of Gloucester as he's called in Shakespeare's play. Richard is young and petulant but being under age it is his uncles and protector Woodstock who wield the real power - think patriarchs in a mafia family. However, the young King discovers that his uncles have mislead him about his age and therefore held the power for longer than they should.

Once Richard has dismissed his protector he sets about asserting his authority and, I suppose, distinguishing himself from the puppet-King he'd been since childhood. It is out with the old and in with new, dismissing his uncles and lavishing more titles and power on his mates - Bushy, Bagot, Green and Treselian, the latter the only one who doesn't make it into Shakespeare's play. He indulges his love of fashion and shows off with big expensive feasts all paid for by blank charters - in Richard II it is referred to as 'farming the realm'.

Of course none of this goes down very well with the nobles or the common people and worried about Woodstock's popularity and potential plots against him, Richard calls his uncle to court but he refuses to come. His favourites suggest a plot to seize the Duke at a party and bundle him off to France and out of the way but soon the plans turn to murder.

I think I described David Tennant's Richard II as the most unlikeable I'd seen and the roots of his arrogance and disrespect for his uncles are certainly here in the younger King.

At the Q&A afterwards Owen was asked if there were plans to do a full blown production but he said there just wasn't the time, which is a shame. These two plays would make a great double bill in the vein of Henry IV parts I and II.

Richard II Barbican back stage tour

Followed Thomas of Woodstock with a behind the scenes tour of the Richard II production. Visited one of the dressing room corridors and then the fly where we could look down on the stage from the lighting rigs. It is also where David Tennant and some of the other actors access the bridge which is lowered down onto the stage - you can't be scared of heights up there is all I'll say.

Apparently at one point during the play Tennant runs off stage, is helped out of one costume and into another, he then runs up three flights of stairs, helped into a new pair of shoes, has his hair and make up spruced before making a new entrance from the bridge. And he does all this in two minutes.

We then got to go into the back stage area where the props were all laid out ready - saw the dead Richard in his coffin up close and the gardeners wheel barrow was being filled with fresh apples. There are various little cubby holes and corners, some with modesty curtains, for those quick costume changes.

Then we went below the stage, partially tracing the steps Tennant takes when he appears from below the stage in his prison cell.

If you've seen the play it is definitely worth doing (and even you haven't) but book in advance because numbers are limited.

Richard II is on at the Barbican until Saturday January 25.