BBC KING RICHARD II
Reading the text of this play left me with a fairly clear impression of how all of the characters would be played, save one: King Richard himself. Perhaps it was just my own lack of attention to the lines, but I found it difficult to get a grasp on just who this King was as a person, noticing what seemed to me so many contradictions in word and deed.
With Derek Jacobi's portrayal of the title role in the BBC production, these ambiguities were wiped away.
Act I Scene I presents a self-obsessed show-off all in white, with elaborate jewelry and ornate crown, titteringly making light of the conflict between Bolingbroke and Mowbray. "How high a pitch his resolution soars!" (109) he screeches like some comic hairdresser. Scene III finds Richard in a stunning ensemble, all lavender and white with sumptuous ermine trim, callously banishing the two adversaries to exile. When he says to John of Gaunt and Henry Bolingbroke, "Cousin, farewell-and uncle, bid him so,/Six years we banish him and he shall go," his disdain, disregard, his total lack of compassion for father and son, is truly chilling. One does not get the impression that he is cruel, so much as that he is so full of himself that he fails to notice the impact of his actions upon those around him. This same attitude is, of course, leads to his ultimate downfall.
In order to reinforce the effeminate quality of Jacobi's portrayal of Richard, Scene IV is played in a bath house. Richard lounges luxuriously on a massage table and talks candidly with his "favourites," Bagot, Bushy, Greene, and Aumerle, all in tubs or lying about in towels. He is particularly catty when comments on Bolingbroke's popularity with the commoners (20-56). The speech begins with a measured consideration of Bolingbroke's banishment and ends with a scathing ridicule of his "wooing poor craftsmen with the craft of smiles" and taking off his bonnet to oyster-wenches. Jacobi hams it up in this last bit, dancing about the bath house and gesticulating wildly, acting decidedly un-kinglike at best and embarrassingly childlike at worst.
Upon receiving the news of John of Gaunt's death (Act II, Scene I), only the first two lines of Richard's speech (153-162) are spoken with any solemnity: "The ripest fruit first falls, and so doth he;/His time is spent, our pilgrimage must be." The next words out of his mouth, "So much for that," and the remainder of the speech, are rendered with such alacrity and obvious venality that the fact is made plain that Richard doesn't care half so much for Gaunt as he does for his estate. For anyone watching who has read the play, this scene tends to foreshadow the tragic events to follow. I myself shook my head, thinking, "You foolish King!"
Clearly there is no time here to go into Richard's gradual transformation as his kingdom begins to slip from his grasp. Suffice to say that Jacobi does it justice, while never quite letting go of the immature, petulant Richard of the earlier scenes. The mirror scene (Act IV, Scene I) shows a more reflective man, yet still intermingled with the whiny, showy, covetous Richard as well.
All in all, a most enjoyable and rewarding production. It is clearly Jacobi's show, and he plays it off like a master.
©1996 Patrick Galloway
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