A symbolic, modern take on Richard II
Anne Simon’s unusual take on Shakespeare’s Richard II, is clever, witty and bang up-to-date.
You might think it has overtones of a pantomime with the stage antics, costumes and piano, but you’d be wrong. There isn’t a single movement, a note on the cello, or a word sung or spoken, that is not pivotal in the portrayal of the story of the man who would be king.
The first of Shakespeare’s plays about the House of Lancaster is not the most popular, nor the easiest to perform, but Simon condenses it beautifully into just over an hour, with humour and a modern take.
Philippe Thelen is the reluctant king, Richard II, hiding from the court in his castle. Afraid to wear the crown, he attaches it to himself like a ball and chain, reminding us of another Shakespeare line that “some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have it thrust upon them”.
Richard II is definitely the latter, and influenced by others, he plots, schemes and takes a self-centred approach to his new power.
He is also what was considered in Shakespeare’s day, a more feminine king. He seeks council constantly from his court – portrayed by Larisa Faber with support and music from Anthime Miller.
They advise, coax and cajole, and are sometimes affronted by Richard’s actions. In a clever ploy, Simon has Faber reading what should happen next from a book, as if Richard is not the main protagonist of his own story, but simply following the lines of Shakespeare’s play.
The plot is fairly simple. Instead of letting his cousin Henry Bolingbroke fight Thomas Mowbray, an indecisive Richard banishes them both, and in doing so sets up a path to his own destruction. The need to prove himself worthy as king, leads Richard to drain the nobility of money to fund a war in Ireland. Eventually he plots to steal Henry’s inheritance, forcing the latter to lead a rebellion that inevitably deposes Richard.
A feminine man or a reluctant king?
Richard is not a natural king. He questions the need to have a king at all, and asks for constant reassurance of what he should do, including from a mirror (much like the queen in Snow White). Shakespeare portrayed him as cunning and underhand, and an unworthy “feminine” king, diametrically opposed to Elizabeth I - a man trapped in a women’s body.
Indeed the cast repeat over and over the famous lines: “I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king,” as if to illustrate in reverse the dilemma Richard is in.
Cross-dressing and comedy
When he first appears on stage, Richard is wearing bloomers and make-up, then later, he puts on a hooped skirt. Soon his court is clad in hooped skirts, a suggestion that it is the feminine wiles of deceit and cunning that have taken control. But it also highlights the non-binary nature of Richard.
This theme is expanded on when Thelen draws a beard on Faber's face.
The music is also used as a tool to bring Richard II into the modern age. As the audience enters the auditorium, Miller sings drag-queen Divine’s famous song “You think you’re a man”.
Later, when Henry Bolingbroke and Thomas Mowbray are about to fight, Faber aptly sings the lines “when two tribes go to war, a point is all that you can score” from the song by Frankie Goes to Hollywood, preparing us for Richard’s sudden change of heart and decree to banish Henry and Thomas.
Luxembourgish asides to the audience
The performance is mostly in English, using Shakespeare’s words but also borrowing texts from Valerie Solanas, Thomas Paine, George Bernard Shaw and Shakespeare’s Elizabeth I.
However, when Richard addresses the audience (the common man whom he believes loves him), he speaks in Luxembourgish. Even if you don’t understand it, you can get the humour in his asides – a device Shakespeare himself used often in his plays.
Verbal humour and musical comedy is peppered throughout the production, except at the end. Here, Simon cleverly moves the cast into new roles.
When Richard abdicates and hands his “hollow crown” to Henry Bolingbroke, Thelen puts it on his own head, becoming Henry, subtly insinuating to the audience that the king is the same, regardless of the person wearing the crown.
Faber then takes on the tragic role of Richard, abandoned by his court and hated by the common people for mismanaging his kingdom and emptying the crown’s coffers to fund war.
Richard just wants to live out his days quietly. He never really relished the role of king, but despite his abdication, Henry still views Richard as a threat. Will the victorious Henry be any better? Let's hope Simon continues her interpretation with Shakespeare's Henry IV.