- Richard II
Trevor Nunn's production of Richard II at London's Old Vic, starring the company's artistic director Kevin Spacey as Richard and Ben Miles as Bolingbroke, was as carefully constructed and precisely executed a production of Shakespeare's "tragical history" as one would wish to see. The superb cast, featuring especially powerful supporting performances by Julian Glover as Gaunt, Oliver Cotton as Northumberland, and David Leon as Harry Percy, combined with simple but powerful sets, riveting sound, and film clips from World War I and World War II that emphasized the "modernity" of the play's examination of political power to produce a stunning evocation of the interplay between personalities and events in moments of historical crisis.
The opening scene brilliantly established Spacey's and Nunn's conception of Richard's character. A tall glass rectangle, brightly lighted from above, stood center stage; inside on a pedestal rested the crown. Nearby on a chair lay the king's bright red, fur-trimmed gown. From upstage center Spacey stepped slowly, majestically towards the glass box, opened its door, removed the crown, and gingerly placed it on his head. He then stepped back and spread his arms, Christ-like, as attendants draped the gown over his shoulders. Spacey stood still a few seconds, as if absorbing the magnitude and majesty of his position, smiled, then turned and walked slowly, deliberately, as if relishing every step he took as king, to sit upon the equally bright red throne and observe the play's opening scene. He administered the initial quarrel between Bolingbroke and Mowbray with a calmness of voice and facial expression that exuded authority, and his "We were not born to sue but to command," while firm, nonetheless [End Page 101] conveyed an astonishment that anyone would, or could, challenge his divinely given authority.
Spacey's voice, movement, and self conviction in the opening scene established the character he would play throughout the first half of the play and against which he would play the second half. He relished controlling the furor between Mowbray and Bolingbroke in 1.3; his "Return again, and take an oath with thee. / Lay on our royal sword your banished hands" was both an order and a self-congratulation spoken with absolute conviction. Even his prophetic line, "As were our England in reversion his," spoken about Bolingbroke's departure, was calm and self-assured. Upon Richard's return from Ireland in 3.2, Spacey initially spoke and moved with the same self-confidence from earlier in the play. Wearing casual clothes, not a military uniform, Richard knelt to touch and gently kiss England's soil, and then began weeping softly. Spacey spoke Richard's lines deliberately, slowly, conscious of the highly wrought poetic images, as if calmly gaining actual military power from his cleverly imagining the "murders, treasons, and detested sins" exposed by the brightening sun. With his assured tone and simultaneous delight in his own words and their imagined power, one heard the hollowness that Bolingbroke would smash, as if the king were now a discarded vase, empty and fragile.
Ben Miles's Bolingbroke was Richard's polar opposite. Miles stormed on stage in 2.3 and, once returned to England, spoke rapidly and impatiently, snapping off consonants that Spacey's Richard would have relished. Bolingbroke and his followers wore contemporary military uniforms throughout the remainder of...