Even before it started, the Thomas of Woodstock rehearsed reading, performed by the RSC Richard II company at the Barbican on December 20th, looked to be remarkable on at least two counts: with about 700 people in attendance, this was the largest crowd in a rehearsed reading I have ever seen. And looking at the notes, I discovered original music had been written for it, an early sign – if nothing else – of how polished the performance was going to be.
Not to repeat what you can read in Wikipedia (and I would strongly urge you to read the entry), Thomas of Woodstock is a play by an anonymous author written between 1590 and 1595 that survives unfinished and without its original title. It covers events in the reign of Richard II leading up to the murder of Richard’s uncle, Thomas of Woodstock. As this murder is the inciting incident in Shakespeare’s play, Thomas of Woodstock is often referred to as Richard II Part 1 as if the two plays can be seen as the same story. (This is not altogether possible: at the end of Thomas of Woodstock, Green is killed in battle, while at the beginning of Richard II he is still alive).
The play proved fascinating both in itself, but more so in relation to the current Royal Shakespeare Company production of Richard II. Compared to Shakespeare’s play, it’s a less spiritual, less political approach to the story of succession, but in some ways more modern. The play does away with the notion of the divine right to rule, and focuses on generational tensions: the young ones are impatient to rule, the elders mean well in their intentions to protect and guide but still reluctant to give up power. The author is clearly on the side of the older generation: Woodstock is graceful and humble, Richard and, more so, his young favourites are rush, shallow and inconsiderate. Still, the energy and drive of the young generation can’t be denied.
While the cast had worked on the play as part of their Richard II rehearsal process, the staging for the public reading, directed by Owen Horsley, was put together very quickly, in about a day. The results were impressive even without accounting for the short preparation. Thoughtful work on movement enlightened the play beyond performances and text: the ghost of Anne O’ Beame remained present on stage after her death, looking after Woodstock. Richard was often preoccupied away from the advice of his uncles and clever movement at the scene of Woodstock’s murder created tension and suggested the dark tone of the betrayal. Additionally, and impressively, Anna Bolton wrote music specifically for the reading. The live musical performance framed and punctuated proceedings and created a stronger link with the Richard II production.
Antony Byrne, whose warm presence underwrites so much of Mowbray’s emotion in the main production, had inner strength and heartbreaking dignity as Thomas of Woodstock. Sam Marks was gleefully committed as Tresilian, a lawmaker without scruples, reservations or remorse and Miranda Nolan showed quiet grace as Queen Anne.
Jake Mann as Richard II was young, clever, misguided and impetuous, but with an immediacy and emotional availability difficult not to engage with. Even more interestingly, there is a through line between his Richard and David Tennant’s portrayal of the king. This Richard had the wit, energy, even charm of Shakespeare’s king, but also an undamaged innocence, an open engagement with his world. David Tennant’s Richard starts damaged, remote, hardened by events in this story (not only does Richard lose loved ones but also is dethroned for three days before managing to seize the crown again). His isolation and inability to trust the right people is at the root of his downfall in Shakespeare’s play.
At the end of the performance, Owen Horsley answered questions covering some of the points above. The text of Thomas of Woodstock was used during rehearsals for Richard II and deepened characterisation and engagement. It was particularly useful for Richard’s portrayal as it gave a starting point and “permission” to explore a more unlikable king than usually portrayed. Questions of authorship were discussed: although some scholars still believe this could be a play by Shakespeare, this is not the prevalent opinion. Nevertheless, themes and verbal motifs occurring in several plays of the period suggest informal collaborations and plays bleeding into each other. A satirical subplot involving a secondary characters and blank charters travelling throughout the country was cut for the purposes of this reading, but shows the skill of the author in varying the tone.
Hopefully the success of the event will provide encouragement for similar initiatives. It was met with interest and enthusiasm by the audience and on a personal note, it enriched my love for the RSC Richard II production.