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In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.

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Thursday November 10 2005

Last night - well, more like this morning - and as already mentioned here, I was up until 3 am, watching the Globe/Rylance Richard II.  It was not quite the riveting experience I had hoped for, basically because I had seen it before too recently.  My mind did occasionally wander.  Also, this is a play with rather a lot of rather interchangeable blokes coming in and out, supporting Richard, switching to Bolingbroke, etc. etc.  Only Richard, Bolingbroke, John of Gaunt, and Richards’ Queen really stood out as individuals, for me.  Normally one would be able to sort out all such complications, but one needs all one’s concentration to follow the verse and make sense of it.  More study of the text is needed.  Better knowledge of the play, and less of the production, would have suited me better last night.  But, no grumbles.  It was very fine.

Well, a few grumbles.  The dance that the whole cast did at the end in addition to bowing may have been authentic, but it looked extremely peculiar to me, and frankly I didn’t like it.  Also, I found the big bloke who played the Queen decidedly offputting to look at, but, unlike the Queen in that Kevin Spacey Richard at the Old Vic, he/she spoke his/her lines with perfect clarity and, for me, managed to triumph over the absurdity of how he/she looked.

Also, there were rather a lot of jets flying overhead.

But, it was a great thrill to reacquaint with Rylance’s central performance, which switched from facetiousness and foolishness to extreme wisdom to casual cruelty like the weather on a breezy bright-with-scattered-showers day.  Here was a Richard who played it for laughs even as catastrophe beckoned.  And here was a king who had never had to work out how to be king, because from the year dot, he was the king.  Thus, he never grew up, until he stopped being king.

Critics, including the ones who chattered away off stage for this production, often mention Richard II as a precursor of Hamlet.  But the later and even greater Shakespeare character that Richard makes me think of most is King Lear, another monarch given to seeking laughs when things are going really badly.

Both are kings who, for very different reasons, depose themselves, with great ceremony.

Both kill people, rather surprisingly, just before they die.  Richard takes out a couple of his would-be assassins before finally succumbing.  Lear kills the “slave” who hanged Cordelia.

The scene where Richard is stripped of his actual power (as opposed to his mere office, which comes a bit later), being forced to make concession after concession, bit by cruel bit, is like the scene in Lear where Lear has all his followers taken away from him, salami style, by whichever nasty daughter it was.

And above all, Richard’s insights as his throne crumbles under him resemble those of Lear as he nears his end.

“Come let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings”, a famous line spoken by Richard, is something Lear might equally have said, and if you had asked me two years ago, before I got to know Richard II at all well, who said that, I might well have guessed Lear rather than Richard, although not with any confidence.  Excuse me while I dig up the corresponding bit from Lear.

Yes, here it is:

Come, let’s away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down,
And ask of thee forgiveness: and we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too,
Who loses, and who wins; who’s in, who’s out;
And take upon ‘s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies; and we’ll wear out,
In a walled prison, packs and sets of great ones
That ebb and flow by the moon.

That is very Richard II, I think.  Lear is older, and Richard, unlike Lear, is alone.  And while Lear was every inch the king, and presumably very good at it when in his prime, Richard only gets to grips with it when it is too late.  But this is the same psychological universe, I think.

That Lear quote is from Act 5 Scene 3, and I found it here.  What a wonder the internet is.  You never have to type famous stuff in any more.

Typically, Rylance got a laugh out of “sad stories of the death of kings”, but in a good way.  It was the sheer inappropriateness of (a) sitting down, and (b) having such a conversation as that, given Richard’s dire circumstances, that was so tragically funny.

It would be great if, in a Globe Theatre production of King Lear, a jet thundered over at the height of the storm.