How didst thou sway the theatre! Make us feel The players wounds were true, and their swords, steel! Nay, stranger yet, how often did I know When the spectators ran to save the blow? Frozen with grief we could not stir away Until the epilogue told us twas a play. From the point of view of an actor, playing the part of Bolingbroke or Richard is a daunting task. There are a number of ways in which an actor prepares to assume a characters role, but many of these methods are wanting in certain areas.
Despite the fact that both characters are rich in the literary sense, for the purposes of this essay the difficulties facing an actor preparing to play a part can be best served by addressing the needs specific to the role of Richard. The major issue, which is more pronounced in Richard is the necessity of trying to portray certain things directly to the audience while allowing other factors to filter through subtly as the performance continues. This factor is one that should be applauded, when one takes into account the manner in which audiences are treated in the modern theatre.
Thankfully Richard II assumes there is an intelligent audience almost participating in the play, but this can lead to even more problems for the actor. Because of its intellectually stimulating content, the actor must be aware of the fact that the character is being observed even more closely. A believable character must be portrayed or the dramatic impact of the play as a whole will be lost. The technical aspects of a part in a play are normally common throughout every performance. The learning of lines may be easily attained but the style in which they are delivered depends on a number of factors.
Firstly, and foremost, the character will have the main influence on the manner in which the lines are spoken. However, this can vary greatly when one considers the huge variations that can result in any play at the behest of the director. Without delving into a debate on whether or not a play should be performed in the style of the time in which it was written, one must acknowledge that a director can very noticeably, or subtly make adjustments to characters and plots which an actor must reflect in their performance.
Furthermore, the audience to which the actor is performing must be taken into consideration. Despite the fact that we are not the classless society that we wish to be in the 21st century, there are less class barriers in place than those of 1597. The aristocratic, highly – Christian society of Shakespeares day differs hugely from our own, and this must be taken into account along with the fact that the modern audience is presumably better educated than their late 16th century counterparts. Finally, the type of stage being used may or may not be an issue for an actor in preparing to portray a character.
The Elizabethan stage, such as The Globe would have been in Shakespeares mind as he wrote, but the huge variety if performance stages today often means certain aspects of a performance must curtailed or expunged upon. Indeed the versatility of many pre – cinema scripts has been demonstrated on the silver screen, none more successfully than the Stratford Bard in recent years. Shakespeares plays are also recognised for the number of plot undertones that can be discerned upon closer examination. Although not a 1990s phenomena, there has been in the recent past an upsurge in the debate over homosexual devices in Shakespearean plays.
While some of these claims do have substance to them, with literature as intense and intricate as Shakespeares, one can read anything that one desires into it to attain ones goal. Sometimes it is necessary simply to take a play as it stands, rather than questioning every element and deconstructing it into such a level of obscurity as to lose the intentions of the author in the first place. Analysis of a text is a necessary part of an actors preparation assuming a role, but over-analysis may result in dubious conclusions, which may not work well on the stage, regardless of the manner in which they were met.
In Shakespeares Play in Performance, John Russell Brown contends that the formalist style of acting in the Elizabethan stage was dying out in Shakespeares age, and that a new naturalism was the kindling spirit in his theatre. While this does seem like a somewhat sweeping statement, Brown does qualify it by saying that it would not be true naturalism by todays standards, but that it did allude more to real life and real situations than previous authors had. Whether or not realism, in any sense of the word is employed, the task of portraying Richard is no less daunting.
Richards role is clearly defined as the centre of attention for the audience to focus upon, but is this because he is the king, or because of his character? Perhaps it is a combination of both, but it would appear that Richardss character is more interesting than the crown he wears. In the first scene, Richard is enthroned and surrounded by his court. Even in his discourses with John of Gaunt, one is made aware of the fact that he demands precise and set answering.
Despite the fact that Richard fails to reconcile Bolingbroke and Mowbray, his presence and power are undiminished. One may or may not be aware of the fact that Richard is responsible for the crime for which Mowbray is accused, that is the murder of the Duke of Gloucester, uncle to both Richard and Bolingbroke. Brown suggests that the audience must question the earlier picture in retrospect (i. e. the calm, confident king) or find their unease strengthened.
This brings up a huge problem to the actor: should he behave as if he has done nothing wrong, or assist the audience in seeing his darker side by allowing non-textual allusions to be made about his true character? It would be more dramatically effective to play the part of the king in the role of trying to disguise his true guilt, and allowing the audience themselves to realise what a scrupulous man he can be. Before the audience is given a chance to gauge its reaction to the opening scene, Act I scene I allows John of Gaunt, the most patriarchal figure on the stage to cast his own aspersions on Richards reign.
This second scene allows the actor playing Richard to have a greater sense of discretion, and though it is not as blatant as having a narrator on stage, this scene does seem to back up Browns theory of Shakespearean realism, allowing an audience to remain informed of off-stage occurrences without resorting to making unnecessary on-stage announcements. The character of Richard itself must be a paradoxical one for an actor to play, as Richard is himself a powerful performer who plays up to his own audience i. e. his flatterers.
In no scene, even after he is forced to abdicate is he any less charismatic, and many would agree quite validly, that he becomes even more charismatic after he loses the throne as he begins to build up his sympathy with his deposed state. Whether in the role of king of the people, as in Act I scenes I and III, or as a callous, self-centred egotist as seen in scene IV, one can be left in absolutely no doubt that this man knows what he wants, will do near anything to get it, and knows how to behave in each situation to ensure he always comes out on top.
This is aided by the stage direction, particularly when one considers his elevated conversation shortly before he abdicates, when he is clearly on a higher level than Bolingbroke. Granted, in the end he is dethroned and murdered, but despite this, the actor must ooze confidence and self-motivation to show the king in a true light. The true character of Richard is shown when he says Pray God we make haste, and come too late, but despite this attitude which is so different to the pious and responsible solemnities of the first regal scenes, he maintains an air of confidence.
Even though they are giving their support to someone who is more interested in lining his coffers than the health of his own uncle, the flatterers can be forgiven for going along with such a personality, so far in any case. Despite the fact that Richards ruling over the feud between Bolingbroke and Mowbray is a complete cop out to save himself, during the scenes with the two nobles, he succeeds in having them lavish praise upon him, despite the fact that the argument is that one of them wishes to depose him. A modern audience cannot help but succumb to Richards charm when he says
Such neighbour nearness to our sacred blood Should nothing privilege him, nor partialise The unstooping firmness of my upright soul. In saying this, he endears himself to us as a champion of free speech, and it is here that an audience has the seeds of sympathy planted. Failing this, the audience is also aware of the fact that the main patriarchal figure is critical of Richard, and despite the fact that his objections are well founded, one cannot help but feel that Richard is somewhat neglected when it comes to the area of family support, regardless of the actions he has committed to solicit such a response.
Towards the end of the play, this sympathy is central to the sense of senselessness engulfing England, and this results in a greater impact being felt because of the murder. Bolingbrokes rejection of Exton for carrying out the murder echoes the point that the action was pointless, but it serves to redemonstrate that Bolingbroke is not intent on stamping his authority on those around him in the same style as Richard did. Richards role as king of the people and man behind the crown must be examined before he can be understood.
Clearly he feels at ease in front of his assembled court, but is this the same case behind closed doors? The answer is a resounding yes, which may come as a surprise to the audience who assume his bravado give way to a more frail and fickle person when in his day to day environment. As a result, Richard reaffirms his strength, and at this point one should question whether or not his power and majesty are really an act, or is he genuinely a larger than life man, with questionable aspirations and methods?
With Richards absence from the stage, the focus of the audience is somewhat blurred for a short period of time. Assuming the actor has reinforced his hold on the attention of those observing, the plot not only centres around him in the scenes where he is present, but also in the scenes where he is spoken about. At this point, an actor must have introduced a zealous, fearless element into the part. Despite the fact that York blatantly accuses Richard of Gloucesters murder, he still leaves him as Governor of England while he attends to the matters at hand in Ireland.
Because of Yorks criticism of Richard, and Richard apparently ignoring it or at least taking it in his stride, one expects that Richard has a plan to exact some sort of revenge in York for his outburst, and this keeps Richards influence alive throughout the four hundred and sixty odd lines for which he is absent. Upon his return, Richard does not exact any sort of revenge upon York, and this suggests that he is not quite the tyrant that he is made out to be.
It could be said, quite fairly that at this stage Richard is aware of his predicament and has decided to try to placate those around him by accepting criticism and not necessarily persecuting those who voice objections to his actions. Derek Traversi comments on how easy it is to underestimate Richard II in saying that The style in which it was written is highly formal and elaborate: so much so that it may seem at first to be lacking in the vigour of real life. He also highlights Richards ability to blur the lines of fact and fiction in Act I scene I.
Lets purge this choler without letting blood Forget, forgive: conclude and be agreed; Our doctors say this is no month to bleed. Although many of Richards speeches in this scene are in a similar vein, this one highlights his ability to mask his true involvement. Traversi asks Is this to be ascribed to intelligence or to indifference, to superior understanding or to a tendency in the speaker to evade the decisions and responsibilities to which his office calls him?
To address this issue from the point of view of a character analysis is one thing, but to try to determine how an actor should propose this attitude of indifference versus understanding is somewhat different. It is very easy for those of us who are performing a textual analysis to come to certain conclusions, but during a live performance some of these conclusions are not quite so forthcoming. During a textual analysis, one normally has the luxury of a greater amount of time.
On top of this, one also imposes certain restrictions on the reading, as one may be concentrating on certain aspects of the plot while putting others onto the sidelines. When observing Richard II from an audience perspective, or indeed any play live on stage, one loses this luxury and must often forfeit ones own views of what plot elements should be explored, and simply accept the direction the particular production has chosen to follow. The actor playing Richard may seem to be in a difficult position, but I would propose that the merging of the two variations of absorbing the play is easily reconciled.
The actor has the advantage of having textually studied the play, aswell as knowing what artistic direction it is going and in what manner it will unfold. We are so far aware if the problems the actor faces in playing the part of Richard, but it is fair to say that this is probably his main advantage – his own personal interpretation. It may be at odds with that of the director or may not tie in with the interpretations by the other actors of their characters, but it allows him to get a feel for the part that is to be played.
This brings up the question of what makes a good actor, particularly when a role like Richard is to be played. Such a debate can go on forever, but can be summarised quite easily. One must first of all separate being a good actor with playing a good character. A good actor ideally, is like a piece of putty which can assume any role presented to him, and morph in the necessary way to portray the character as believable. A good character portrayal is not necessarily the result of good acting.
In an age where type casting is rife, there is a growing tendency in recognising those who play strong, interesting characters, even if it means that these characters are not necessarily as difficult to play as those which are not so strong. In short, an actor should be judged on what he brings to a role rather than simply being honoured for playing a character which is simply laid out, and can be played with ease even if it results in a powerful performance. This issue also brings up a debate which has been ongoing for some time, but has resurfaced quite strongly recently.
That is the issue of whether or not actors are simply puppets, who with enough preparation and repetition can play any part. Granted, rehearsals are of paramount importance, but I do not subscribe to the theory that anyone can play any given part if they have enough time to prepare. The character of Richard is perfect for demonstrating this in that an actor playing the part must have the inexplicable gift of presence. This role demands that even when silent and subservient he remains the audiences focus of attention, and that it is not believable that this ability can be attributed to anyone who assumes the role.
The role of Richard can be seen as quite a pioneering one in that it borders on realism, and brings the subtleties of true-life character defects onto the stage in a way that was not done previously. Edward Dowdes sums up these issues when commenting on Richard III being outshone by the less famous Richard II in saying that Bolingbroke and Richard do not, like the figures in Richard III forcibly posses themselves of our imagination, but engage it before it is aware, and by degrees advance stronger claims upon us and make good these claims.
This description is apt, in showing how the discreet and silent approach of the play on an audiences psyche is infinitely more effective in having the audience absorbed into the plot than a simple assault upon the senses. The manner in which the intricacies of the plot of Richard II sneak up and arrest an audience are testament to its elusiveness in seizing ones understanding and it cleverly arranges itself such that one is not consciously aware of its existence until a certain point in the play when it merges with a variety of factors and the true underlying essence of the play is revealed.
In closing, it must be pointed out that there is no one way for an actor to prepare to play this role, however there will be certain consistencies, regardless of the production due to the nature of the character presented. Even if one chooses not to portray Richard as the tragic character he truly is and chooses to portray him as a vicious tyrant who got his comeuppance, one must acknowledge that the overwhelming number of variations on the many themes of this part are such that any one performance cannot be held as paramount.
To do this would defeat the nature of such a character and force it to become enshrined in stone, when the true beauty of this character is that the man on the stage who espouses such good reasons to hate him, actually engages us as an audience to sympathise with him and almost admire him. Any actor assuming the role of Richard must first of all acknowledge all the possible ways he can be portrayed before actually settling on one particular way of performing it.