A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions
Richard II

Ralph Fiennes is giving what must be the virtuoso Shakespeare performance of the new millennium so far: on Saturdays through August 5 he plays Coriolanus at the matinee and Richard II at the evening performance at the Gainsborough Studio Theatre, a vast auditorium erected in the shell of Hitchcock’s old movie studio in Shoreditch.   In contrast to the large cast at Gainsborough, “Stones in his Pockets” is a delightful comedy that makes its point with only two actors who take on multiple roles.

 The two Shakespeare plays and the two heroes could not be more different: “Richard II” is the earlier, a lyrical work written around the time of “Romeo and Juliet” and based on the history of the Wars of the Roses as recorded by two Elizabethan historians. “Coriolanus” is a later work, based on the Roman history by Plutarch , translated by Thomas North, with involved, compressed imagery, interrupted rhythm, and varied meter.  Both demonstrate a favorite Elizabethan theme: the hero’s fall from a position of power, the fall his own responsibility because of a flawed character and faulty judgment.

As soon as Fiennes’ Richard enters, splendidly dressed in contrast to the sober costumes surrounding him, you sense that he is too proud; in a procession to music, he is carried in, proudly seated high on a throne, but once set down, his voice and facial and hand movements betray a weak ruler.  As  two challengers sturdily face each other, Richard never looks directly at either, although he turns his head first towards one and then the other, as if impatient that someone other than himself has the spotlight.  As he emphasizes his plea (ignored) that they give up their challenge, his hand, intended as support to his argument, is graceful but indecisive.

In the presence of dying Gaunt, who with his last gasp predicts that England, “this blessed isle” will collapse unless Richard mend his wild ways, Fiennes is literally a “skipping king.”  In defiance, he prances over to his cohorts in “sinful ways” and embraces them, sticking out his tongue at Gaunt.  That Fiennes keeps this under control, daringly going to the edge, but not over it, is to his credit.  In this scene Richard makes his fatal decision, to seize the possessions of Gaunt to finance his invasion of Ireland so that he, Richard, can play a war hero. It is inevitable that Gaunt’s son Bolingbroke will return, with troops to back him up, to claim his seized inheritance and, supported by the nobles, the crown itself.

When Richard returns from Ireland to find he is deserted by his soldiers, by the public, and by the mighty nobles led by Northumberland, Fiennes’ very posture suggests the defeat to come.  Wearing a “sea robe” over his glittering coat, he thrashes about the large, grass-covered stage as if seeking shelter and finding none, finally throwing himself upon the earth, which he “salutes,” suggesting in the first of his wild images that should his enemies pluck a flower, the earth present them instead with a stinging nettle.  In the series of lyrical outbursts that follow in this scene, Fiennes modulates his voice and its rhythms to bring out both Richard’s desperation and his theatrics, almost as if he finds enjoyment in exploring and expressing the depths of his sorrow.  The “hollow crown” speech is the high point of the scene, seemingly spontaneous and delivered with phrasing and modulation that renders its complex imagery with complete clarity.

Jonathan Kent’s direction recognizes that the character of Richard is best appreciated when set against its foil, Bolingbroke, and this is stressed in a variety of ways.  First, for the role he has cast Linus Roache, whom viewers may remember for his sensitive portrayal of the journalist love-interest in the film of Henry James’s “The Wings of the Dove.”  Next, taking his cue from the text, where Bolingbroke is termed “silent,” he not only speaks little but he moves hardly at all, so his position of statue-like strength is a contrast to Richard’s constant movement one way and then another, like his undetermined mind.  Bolingbroke wears working black throughout, even when he is king; Richard in the early scenes sets the one decorative fashion note.  Bolingbroke’s tone, as dictated by the text, is almost flat, and sometimes it is wry as in the scene he himself describes as a comedy, when the Duchess of York, in an excellent portrayal by Barbara Jefford, pleads for her traitorous son Aumerle.  Roache is to be commended for restraining the character and not playing for sympathy. 

The climactic scene of the deposition is especially effective in its staging, with an emotional Richard on one side of the crown and on the other, Bolingbroke saying little and moving hardly at all.  When tearful Richard regards himself in the mirror, which he then shatters as he is shattered, sympathy turns to him. Where we earlier perhaps shared Northumberland’s impatience with Richard’s antics and were relieved when he was replaced by the dependable Bolingbroke, crowned King Henry IV, now we pity Richard.

There is more pity to come in the scene of Richard’s death in prison.  Stooped, barefoot,  half naked, clutching a blanket, Fiennes’ Richard cowers and hides his face when a former groom of his stable visits him.  Richard’s love of language now serves him well as in soliloquy he attempts to “hammer out” in his brain a way to “people” his lonely cell.  In his new book, Shakespeare’s Language, Frank Kermode points out what a difficult passage this is to understand.  It is a tribute to Fiennes that he makes it absolutely clear, as well as effective.  The final scene reminds us of the “falls of princes” as spotlit from above, the corpse of Richard, who entered carried high in splendor at the beginning, now lies low.