Richard II: Maybe I Don't Deserve Nice Things

I managed to get a last minute standing room ticket to Richard II at the Donmar Warehouse.  I had not been to the Donmar since Take Me Out (a long time ago and holy cow that was great).  So I was overdue for a visit and despite the 2 hour 40 minute running time I decided it was worth standing for.   And...of course I did not really like it. 

I know.  I am an ungrateful bitch.  Eddie Redmayne, Donmar, Shakespeare...I should be able to find something nice to say about it.  But I am really trying and I am coming up empty (besides pretty pretty cheekbones and me wondering if the guy in the front row was Jude Law--it might have been, or maybe not).  I really wish someone else saw it with me so I could have discussed it right then and there.  The audience was eating it up.  And I wondered if I was in Book of Mormon again (yeah, I didn't really get why the audience loved BOM so much). 

This is all to say it was not terrible or unwatchable.   It was unimaginative and off the mark and I just expected more considering the cast, director and theater.  Maybe I set my expectations too high.

How about a little background.  I am embarrassed to say I have not studied very many of the history plays of Shakespeare.  I never read Richard II.  I am a Henry V fan (I mean after the Kenneth Branagh film how could you not be) and I have seen student productions of Henry IV (parts one and two).  But it has been a while.  I point this out because in some ways I am always geared up for tragedy or comedy with Shakespeare and when it is anything less than that I am little confused (All's Well That Ends Well anyone?).  So I left Richard II wondering a bit about the dramatic arc, the characters and the dramatic power that felt oddly missing.  I am still trying to point fingers at the right culprit but my conclusion is that mostly the production let me down in those areas.

Without giving it all away (spoiler alert), Richard II is king and then in a bloodless coup gives up the crown to his cousin Henry Bolingbroke (Henry IV).  He's not a great king and even worse a bit of a sore loser (there is a slightly comedic scene where they wrestle over the crown for a moment).  But the dramatic thrust of the play is about how mortal men can override tradition, duty, and loyalty and back a different horse in the race for king when at the time it was believed succession was a divine right given by God.  The tension between the divinely chosen king versus a good king seem to dominate as Richard is ineffectual, rash and impetuous and Henry builds a consensus among the nobles for his support and he is interested in justice and fairness.

Now I have read some reviews and I wish I saw the play they were talking about: the rapturous love for Michael Grandage in his swan-song production, the accolades for Eddie Redmayne and his nuanced performance. Nope.  Not here folks.  Not at all. 

Something was definitely missing from this production for me.  The struggle between Eddie Redmayne as Richard and Andrew Buchan as Henry did not deliver the dramatic impact I would expect from Shakespeare.  I know it is not a tragedy but there was no emotional or dramatic build (Ok I mean there was it was a little uptick at the end when finally someone ends up dead--What is Shakespeare without a pile of bodies on stage?  It's like a Michael Bay movie without explosions.).

Richard and Henry are not really equal rivals.  Richard is king.  Henry is not, yet.  But Richard is vain, fashionable, and quite delicate going to war in a shiny new gold suit.  Henry comes across as more of a blue collar guy for lack of a better phrase (not so much in performance but in contrast to Richard)--hard working, gets his hands dirty, knows how to fight in his aged but legit armor.  Redmayne is slim and pretty and this physically worked for Richard when he was king but as he starts to lose a grip on his power, Redmayne came across to me as one-note whiny (putting aside the whole Drew Barrymore acting out of one side of his mouth thing he was doing the WHOLE time).  Certainly Richard is whiny at times but I did not feel Redmayne conveyed anything else.  Maybe it was my throbbing calves and the fact that I was in the rafters, but I did not think Redmayne connected to the material when Richard starts to lose control.  It was not clear to me what dramatic choices he was making and why. 

In some ways this play could be a younger man's Lear.  Here is a guy at the start who thinks he knows exactly who he is, exactly what power he has and it turns out it is all fleeting and will be over shortly.  Lear's descent into madness could be paralleled with Richard's loss of power and frantic desperation.  I see the potential of the play and the role.  But I just did not think Redmayne delivered.

Buchan also came up short.  He gave a serviceable by the book performance without verve or color.  Most of the cast did.  But Ron Cook, as the Duke of York, the advisor to Richard who stays loyal to him out of duty gave an incredible performance.  He just took the stage over when he was on it.  He had such a commanding presence.  Michael Hadley as John of Gaunt also had his moments (though weaker when playing the Gardener).  I kept thinking that the older actors were able to deliver their lines and imbue their characters with gravitas and resonance, so why not the younger ones?

Oddly enough I found both Redmayne and Buchan lacking in charisma and presence when on stage.  Redmayne is pretty to look at (no question) and the role in some ways plays against him being a powerful presence but at times he seemed almost inconsequential--like the mere whisp of a man who might just blow away.  If that was the intended effect, it worked but it sucked the drama from the stage.  And if that was the intended effect, than Buchan had lots of room to embody the leader that everyone wanted--but he didn't.

I was a little disappointed in Michael Grandage's direction.  I did like the staging on two levels.  It worked well to convey the two worlds of Richard and Henry.  But overall, I felt as if I was watching a very traditional Shakespearean production staged for an audience of a different era.  I was not expecting Grandage to have updated Richard II so that everyone is a political candidate with some sort of contemporary political message woven in (I don't know Al Gore conceding the election? That would have been terrible).  I think a traditional production can still deliver the meaning of the original work to a contemporary audience if the actors and director want it to. But here, I struggled to find the relevance of this production of Richard II and I don't think it should have to be that much of a struggle.

It was such a letdown after Grandage's amazing staging of King Lear.

In the end, I am glad I saw it.  I would have wondered and lamented missing it otherwise.  Now I might just pick up the play to read and hope I get a chance to see this play again done better.