“Sad stories of the death of kings”: Richard II at the RSC and Edward II at the National Theatre

John Heffernan as Edward, Kyle Soller as Gaveston. Photo Johan Persson

John Heffernan as Edward, Kyle Soller as Gaveston. Photo Johan Persson

From announcement it seemed great timing that Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II and Shakespeare’s Richard II were going to be performed so close together, at the National Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company respectively. The stories of two kings forced to abdicate the throne on the way to a violent death, the similarities between the plays make comparing and contrasting tempting. Even more so now that I have seen the productions and they are both in my “I am so in love I want to talk about them all the time” list. In other words, any excuse will do.

Spoiler warning and context: I normally try to avoid spoilers but this is a different kind of post, with plenty of spoilers for the plays and the two aforementioned productions. If you so wish, you can read my (mostly) non  spoilery reviews for Richard II and Edward II. Also I am not a scholar and my understanding of the text comes almost exclusively from performance. My observations relate to these particular productions as seen through my eyes.

Edward and Richard: One would be hard pressed to describe either as good rulers (at least at the time we meet them), but similarities stop there. Edward, as played by John Heffernan, is the rebel barefoot king, defined by his need to love and be loved. It makes him vulnerable, often weak, but opens the soul and makes it easy to be on his side. Richard is far more elusive. His divine right to rule is his default understanding of himself, but at the same time there is an ever present – if well hidden – hollowness to his conviction. It’s the trojan horse that opens the door to his salvation. Richard is not easy to like, and in David Tennant’s performance he never quite surrenders that last scrap of regal entitlement, but there is hope in a man who looks at his downfall in the same uncompromising way he reigned supreme.

The lovers: Marlowe is fearless in presenting a relationship between Edward and Gaveston that can be nothing but physical. Shakespeare makes no attempts in that direction, but the RSC production gives Richard a lover in the form of the Duke of Aumerle (played by Oliver Rix). The tender kiss they share at the Flint castle thaws our resistance and open Richard up to a humanity that was hard to see before.

The murderers: In both productions, the lovers become the executioners (albeit in different ways) and intriguingly, in both cases, this is a directorial choice not dictated by the text. In Edward II, Kyle Soller who plays Gaveston comes back from the dead in the role of the assassin paid to kill Edward. While the text remains intact, it’s hard to escape the echo of Gaveston being the angel of death. In RSC’s Richard II, Aumerle, caught in the wrong side of the power struggle and in desperation to prove himself, kills Richard. It’s a story development not in the text (where the assassin is some other minion of small significance) but makes perfect dramatic sense: the last face Richard sees is that of his lover, and Aumerle becomes the tragic hero, a moral man who loses his soul in other people’s power games.

Oliver Rix (Aumerle), David Tennant (Richard II). Photo Kwame Lestrade

Oliver Rix (Aumerle), David Tennant (Richard II). Photo Kwame Lestrade

The pretenders to the throne: If Edward is a man better suited to a summer of love than the throne, Lord Mortimer the younger who grabs the power from him is lustful and increasingly paranoid. Christopher Marlowe’s sexual politics are revolutionary but politically he is on the side of the rightful king. Shakespeare presents a more complex picture: Richard’s reign is unsustainable and Bolingbroke is pragmatic and a good ruler. Still the mood is one of betrayal and of sins unwashed.

The allies: Despite Edward being a pure soul, his allies are often self serving vultures circling a corpse. Only his young son (eventually crowned king as Edward III) shows the unflinching sense of justice only children can show. On the other hand, unlikeable Richard has the devotion of his wife and a group of friends who, though they benefit from his favours, don’t show the self serving cruelty Edward’s friends demonstrate.

The productions: the National Theatre production has a delicious anarchic scrappiness that brings the play to vivid life. The RSC production is sparse without being austere, and with a precision that allows to taste all the juices of the play. Different approaches, equally thrilling results.

The writers: Edward II was Christopher Marlowe’s last play, first performed in 1592 by The Earl of Pembroke’s Men. A few months later, in 1593, Marlowe was killed. Richard II was first performed in 1595 by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. Given that Shakespeare and Marlowe were born the same year (1564), they wrote these plays at roughly the same age, in their mid to late twenties. One assumes Shakespeare was aware of Edward II when he wrote Richard II and I would welcome any information on specific influences (or not).

Edward and Richard in history: I have no intention of writing about the historical figures but it’s interesting that Edward II was the great grandfather of Richard II. In fact, in 1377 and at the age of ten, Richard II succeeded his grandfather Edward III to the throne as his father, the Black Prince, had died the previous year. In Christopher Marlowe’s play, Edward III is the young boy becoming king at the end of the story. Both in this context, but also because of the chronological order the plays were written, Richard’s lament:

“…let us sit upon the ground.
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war…”

almost certainly refers to his great grandfather.

Edward II plays at the National Theatre till 26 October, so you need to hurry. Richard II plays in Stratford till 16 November, and then in London at the Barbican till 25 January. Tickets are difficult to come by but not impossible so keep trying. Richard II will broadcast to cinemas in the UK and around the world on November 13th, visit the RSC website for participating cinemas.

You can listen to an interview with Edward II director Joe Hill-Gibbins and actor John Heffernan at TheatreVoice and John Wyver at Illuminations has a comperehensive list of resources and reviews / responses about Richard II.

3 responses to ““Sad stories of the death of kings”: Richard II at the RSC and Edward II at the National Theatre

    • Very good. Of course, in Edward II the reveal is for the audience’s benefit only and well before the deed, while in RII the reveal also affects Richard.

      I wondered whether I should make something of the bare feet: with the exception of the prison scenes – when they are barefoot for obvious, non character related, reasons – both characters seem to be in true state of self when they don’t wear shoes: Edward in the whole first half of the production, and by the time he starts wearing shoes, he is rather disillusioned. And Richard at the Wales coast.

  1. Pingback: Richard II at the RSC | The Shakespeare blog

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