Preview: Richard II

26 April 2012

The team behind this week’s ADC Mainshow speak to TCS about the challenges and joys putting on one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known works.

Interview with George Johnston (Director), Charlotte Quinney (Assistant Director), Alex Gomar (Richard), Danny Rhodes (Duke of York)

TCS: George and Charlotte – what made you choose ‘Richard II’ in particular for this project?

George: I went for ‘Richard II’because I personally have a very strong affinity with the play and with the text: I saw it recently and when I left there were lines which just stuck in my head. Also I felt it was something I could personally give something to. As a director you need to be able to answer any question an actor can ask you about what the play means: a lot of it is about divine right of kingship, what it is to be king and what it is to lose your kingship, and because I study history I felt I had the knowledge to contextualise that.

Charlotte: I wanted to join as assistant director partly because I saw a production as well, five or six years ago, and the monologues in it are seriously exceptional. The sense of the individual in the play is really interesting too, and I think it’s a play that more people need to know.

TCS: It’s not necessarily the most well-known of Shakespeare’s works – for you, how does it stand out in the canon?

George: It does stand out to me on two grounds. One is irrefutable: it’s written entirely in verse, which none of his other plays are. I think the language also has a lyrical quality, a beauty to it, a rhythm to it, and a subtle playing with words. And I think it has tragic elements which other histories lack. That’s why people are surprised by it because they approach it as a history, then it has this really lovely, enthralling tragical depth.

Danny: You come to it thinking: early history, kings, wars etc – it sounds like one of Shakespeare’s drier things and it just took me completely by surprise.

Charlotte: There’s no perfect heroic figure who saves the day; there are two imperfect men who balance each other throughout the play. Richard’s so unconventional as a king, as a hero of the play, and as a character of war and of history. He’s so unique and so fascinating.

George: If you were to search for a character in the canon that was most like Hamlet, it would be Richard II. He has the poetical expression and the wit…

Charlotte: …and the not quite fitting into the mould that he’s supposed to be in. Hamlet’s supposed to be the king, the rightful heir, in the same way that Richard’s meant to be the king. But neither of them are kingly characters.

Danny: They’re nerds in a world of jocks! Hamlet and Richard are getting their lunch money stolen while Bolingbroke and Claudius are taking the throne.

TCS: Do you feel extra pressure in staging Shakespeare, with the precedent and expectation that comes with that?

George: The biggest thing about Shakespeare is that it is just more difficult than directing a modern play, as there are so many things that weigh against you. You’ve got to master the verse or you’re not going to get anywhere, and you just don’t have that in, say, Pinter.

Alex: But also with Shakespeare there’s SO much precedent. Playing a character like Richard, you’re so acutely aware that you’ve got people like Derek Jacobi, Ian McKellen, Fiona Shaw, Eddie Redmayne, Mark Rylance… All these big, huge, British household, dinner table names!You get people coming up to you and saying: ‘this is my favourite Shakespeare’, which obviously says so much. I’ve had people saying, ‘I’m not going to come to see you because this thing that you’ve undertaken is so big…’. And OK, sure – but please come!

TCS: And how do you deal with the really famous passages?

George: Well when I saw Rory Kinnear’s Hamlet I didn’t know it as a play at all, and I remember when he said “To be or not to be, that is the question”. I didn’t know it was coming, and I just went ‘Fuck, that is a famous line! He just said that line!’. And there must be audience members every night who do that.

Danny: It’s like in the read-through when Alex said “For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground. And tell sad stories of the death of kings”. I was like, that’s in ‘Blackadder’! It’s Shakespeare?!

Alex: And, “There’s something rotten in the state of Denmark”. I saw that on ‘Neighbours’…

Charlotte: But when we’ve done the scenes we’ve gone – ‘Oh, that’s nice, that’s a line we recognise’. But we haven’t thought that we need to focus on it or treat it differently.

George: I think my role as director is to make people forget about all of that. Forget they’re in a rehearsal room, forget Ian McKellen, forget they’ve seen a production of the play before. And just do it. Then you get a truth and a naturalism in it.

Charlotte: The style of the workshops we’ve been doing is mainly letting the actor do what the actor needs to do, to have that freedom. For different people it means a lot of different things. So there’ll be a uniform performance style, but it’s going to be achieved by fifteen extraordinary individuals who are achieving one fluid thing. It’s really awesome.

Alex: And they’re all so lovely!

TCS: A lot of the talk surrounding productions of Shakespeare nowadays is on how to make it ‘relevant’. Is that something you felt the need to consider?

George: I think you get lost in that minefield. That word relevant is so tenuous – in what way is it relevant? How do you decide what’s relevant to you? I think so many Shakespeares in Cambridge are really compromised by the fact that directors think they need a concept, think they need to make it relevant, and they forget about the actual story which is why people are watching. If people care what happens to the tragic protagonist, it doesn’t matter where they are. And ultimately ‘Richard II’is about the king having two bodies in Early Modern thought: his body normal, and his body politic. If you put it in Tony Blair’s New Labour, that doesn’t make sense!

Danny: Yeah, this doesn’t have to be about the expenses scandal.

Charlotte: Although it could be! But it’s more about an audience watching it and enjoying it, that’s what’s relevant to them.

Alex: It’s fascinating to take the play at face value in the time that it was written, in the culture that it came from. And everyone loves a period drama – look at ‘Downton Abbey’!

TCS: So, give us in one sentence a reason why we should all come to see this play.

Danny: It’s a play that’s written about humans, and we’re all human.

George: It’s bloody brilliant.

Richard II runs from 1st-5th May at the ADC at 7.45pm (Sat matinee: 2.30pm)