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Two Understated Productions of Richard II

Victoria Joynes recounts the most memorable productions of "Richard II" over the past 150 years, starting with the 1857 staging by Charles Kean at the Princess's Theatre.

Victoria Joynes

The first time I saw Richard II was the RSC production in 2000 at The Other Place in Stratford, directed by Stephen Pimlott with Sam West in the title role and David Troughton as Bolingbroke. It was an intimate show with a minimalist white set and very little scenery other than a large wooden box which acted as coffin, prison and mirror. I was spellbound by this production and Richard II became one of my favourite plays! I have since found in our collection, however, a couple of items which show the play has been performed in a much more elaborate way in the past.

Richard II 2000 Set Malcolm Davies
Set of Richard II, 2000 at The Other Place. (Photograph by Malcolm Davies)

In 1857 Charles Kean staged Richard II at the Princess’s Theatre with himself in the title role and Walter Lacy as Bolingbroke.

Charles Kean as Richard II 1857
Charles Kean as Richard II in 1857

This was the most spectacular production since Elizabethan times and it ran for 85 nights. Kean cut the text of the play so savagely that almost a third of the play was lost; he filled these gaps with expensive scenery, costumes, and late 14th century music.

He introduced the visual spectacle of Bolingbroke’s triumphal procession leading Richard into London, using life-size dummy horses and over 500 extras, to create a scene which is only described by the Duke of York in the text. Action throughout the play was slowed down as there were 10-15 minute breaks between scenes to move the elaborate scenery. The large playbill describes the lavish stage settings - this was a time of historical accuracy in the theatre and Kean created replicas of John of Gaunt’s room at Ely House, the privy council chamber at Westminster, and even the Gloucestershire countryside!

Playbill for Richard II 1857
The playbill for Kean’s production of Richard II in 1857
Purists were not impressed by this indulgent spectacle, and in 1899 William Poel’s Elizabethan Stage Society moved to bring productions down to simple sets and costumes, with greater focus on the text. This movement drove changes in style into the twentieth century. However, there was one more spectacle which slipped through the net! In 1903 Herbert Beerbohm-Tree staged a production of Richard II at His Majesty’s Theatre with himself in the title role and Oscar Asche as 

Bolingbroke, and he not only included Kean’s tableau of the procession into London, but also a coronation scene for Bolingbroke/Henry IV. This production was just as popular as Kean’s with audiences still extremely receptive to lavish productions containing pageantry, and as such, it remained in his repertory until 1910.

The king, crowned, in a long robe and with long black hair, holds a sceptre as he stands watching a procession of clerics and bishops. His decorated throne is beside him, and to his right and behind him is an attendant holding a very long sword.

On the occasion of the 50th consecutive performance of Tree’s production, every person in the audience was given a commemorative scroll, and we have one in our collection. Produced by Charles Buchel, the colourful scroll illustrates the procession of the characters, including four horses and a dog which were all part of the cast, presumably making the backstage area short on space. On the back of the scroll the story is written and the scroll also has a replica seal. Critics at the time felt that whilst the production focused more on antiquarian detail and pageantry, the dramatic interest suffered.

Beerbohm Tree Richard
Souvenir scroll from Beerbohm Tree’s 1903 production of Richard II

I feel it is a crime to cut out so much of the wonderful language from Richard II, especially John of Gaunt’s “Sceptred Isle” speech and Richard’s prison soliloquy, as Kean did in his production; this is a large part of what makes the play so engaging in the first place. However, there is a part of me which would love to see the spectacular productions of the nineteenth and early twentieth century!