This summer Bronzehead Theatre will perform Richard II across a variety of scenic locations around Yorkshire. Ahead of their opening, 8th July, we dropped in on rehearsals to talk to director Tom Straszewski, actors Mark Burghagen (Richard) and Amy Millns (Bolingbroke) about their refreshing take on a complex story of kingship and isolation. For Tom and Mark, who have worked together on a previous adaptation of the play, revisiting Richard II is a chance to scale down the story of a problematic monarch to a relatable political fable for modern audiences. As a bewildered porter directed me to “Richard III rehearsals”, we joked that this Richard may not have the posthumous celebrity of a certain “king-in-the-carpark”. Nevertheless, Richard II is certainly making a comeback in popular performance, largely due to David Tennant’s recent stint in the role for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Tom is adamant, too, that the play has relevance for its portrayal of authority figures who are “not seen to have the interests of the country at heart”, he playfully adds, “not pointing any fingers”!
Richard is a king who ‘finds himself alone on top’
Don’t expect a caricature of Richard’s pomp and tyranny from this production. Mark has plenty of sympathy for the character, having thoroughly researched the historical Richard’s life. The production uncovers the story of a man who, from childhood, was “spoilt” by the promise that he was God’s representative on Earth. As Mark articulates, Richard is a king who “finds himself alone on top”. Mark’s passion for the dramatic role, as well as the historical one, shines through as he discusses the production. This production will be the first to stage the play at Pontefract Castle, the prison and site of the historical Richard’s death over 600 years ago. As the play draws to Richard’s iconic prison soliloquy, Mark is “fascinated” by the prospect of being the first actor to perform this scene “in the actual space”. This figure of an isolated king is focal, not only to Mark’s portrayal of the character, but also to the production’s overall staging. Richard is not just metaphorically “alone on top”, but a tattered garden ladder serves as a raised throne. The solitary burden of kingship is one that director Tom also wants to throw upon Richard’s usurper, Bolingbroke. “When Bolingbroke ascends the same throne”, elaborates Tom, “we really wanted to play it with a sense that he is trapped”.
Interestingly this production’s take on the bravado-fuelled grapple between Bolingbroke and Richard has been cast as “totally gender-blind”. Despite Bolingbroke’s “rough and ready” attitude, Amy doesn’t feel any pressure to try and overplay his masculinity. “It can be helpful to play with those extremes [in rehearsal]”, she explains with a cheeky grin, “because [that helps] to rein it in”. As Amy sums up Bolingbroke’s attitude to kingship, she, perhaps subconsciously, hits a wonderful pun on this production’s key concept of England as a garden. Bolingbroke, she says, is a king unafraid to “get his hands dirty”.
All the play’s imagery of England as a garden, which Richard has ‘left to rot away’, came into bloom.
Tom explains how the struggle to reinterpret a comic scene in the play opened up this Eden of garden imagery, which is now crucial to the production and its many settings. In performance, the scene is a hilarious farce with a horde of noblemen, each slamming their gloves to the ground as they challenge each other to duels. Tom was keen to keep this “wonderful piece of theatre” but didn’t want to tie the whole production to a medieval setting. He jokingly recalls asking himself “Who wears gloves today”? Of course, gardeners sprung to mind and all the play’s imagery of England as a garden, which Richard has “left to rot away”, came into bloom. As well as being performed in a real mix of outdoor settings, the garden concept is also embodied in the use of tools as weapons. Medieval swords and spears become spades and pitchforks. As Amy explains, it’s not the size of your weapon; it’s how you wield it – the spades, for example, are “powerful and intimidating weapons” in the production. She recalls an early rehearsal of Mowbray and Bolingbroke’s duel in which the “harsh clanging” sounds of the garden tools were crucial in building tension. Bardolatry purists can look away now as the production has even moved the scene between gardeners in the play, what Tom describes as a “microcosm” of the play’s political atmosphere, to act as a prologue.
This production’s creative concept plants seeds of humanity in Richard’s character that will certainly grow upon their encounters with an audience. As Tom beams, “one man charged with the care of his kingdom is not a role many people can relate to, but one man and his garden…”