The romantic portrait of Richard II, definitively acted by John Gielgud and echoed by Derek Jacobi decades later is that of a graceful, charming aesthete playing the role first of an all-powerful monarch and then of a pitiful martyr, all the way using poetic language to cast a spell on the audience. Gielgud especially, with a dazzling verse-speaking technique, made Richard a figure of high tragedy in his 1960 recording for Caedmon records. Opposite him, Keith Michell as Bolingbroke, was the man of action, noble but practical, forced by circumstance to unseat the “sweet lovely rose” who was so temperamentally unsuited for rule.

The Argo recording belongs to an alternate universe, probably by chance. It is one of the very first plays to be undertaken by the project, in 1957, on a shoestring budget, with a bare minimum of professional actors (I count six about whom I can find any data at all on the web). It may be that director George Rylands cast himself as Richard in all earnestness as the best available talent, along with Anthony Jacobs as Bolingbroke. But this casting has some radical effects on the meaning of the play. Rylands’ Richard is shrill, pouty, petulant, yelping, hard on the ears, miles away from Gielgud’s honeyed tones. Shakespeare’s poetry is intact, and it is spoken with clarity and intelligence. All the characteristics of Shakespeare’s Richard are captured – Rylands is not, at the end of the day, a bad actor. But the beauty is gone, and without that saving grace, there is no veil to shield us from the reality that Richard II is a very poor king and at best a severely underdeveloped human being – reckless, selfish, grasping, whiny and thin-skinned, as unaware of the feelings of those around him as an infant.As Bolingbroke, Jacobs (whose television roles include the old miser Gride in Nicholas Nickleby and crotchety old Prince Bolkonsky in War and Peace) is no disinterested savior. He is a wily pragmatist who is not without humanity but who is not above seizing a good opportunity. For a play written entirely in verse, the resulting tone of ambiguity seems bracingly realistic. Not for the last time, I am unsure of where my sympathies lie. At the end, Richard in prison finds not salvation and a renewal of his humanity and dignity (ala Gielgud), but rather a poignant shock of childlike self-awareness. And Bolingbroke, having won the jackpot, begins to show the first signs of guilt and loss of confidence.

I should also mention that 27 year old Tony Church is terrific as old John of Gaunt, time-honoured Lancaster.

Richard II with George Rylands, Anthony Jacobs and Tony Church


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