RICHARD II

I was in Ireland (1968) supporting a big movie star in an epic no-one ever saw - I hope — when Richard Cottrell, a friend from Cambridge days, bravely invited me to play for the touring Prospect Theatre Company. He flew out to the location, where we planned the production together. We realised that all the leading characters of the drama were related and that it was a royal family saga of squabbling marriages, rebellious sons and worried parents, of cousins who love or hate each other. Head of the Family is one of the youngest and least suitable members, ruling with the divine right of kings. At the outset, King Richard behaves as if he were God himself and it is only as his power is challenged and eventually usurped, that he comes to painful terms with those human failings which had marred his kingship. Yet, as the king declines and the more he suffers, the more impressive he grows as a man. This left me with the main acting problem, of understanding what if feels like to be a god.


As Richard II

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Being a king is always easy. You wear a crown and a glittering robe (mine was partly fashioned out of milk-bottle tops); you sit on the throne upstage and get the rest of the cast to kowtow. You walk ever so slowly, like the Queen always does, as if the slightest hurry would crack the precious glass which invisibly protects you from your subjects. But the House of Windsor is not divine. I had to look around for some other, modern equivalent of King Richard, which might connect Shakespeare's mediaeval monarch with our contemporary experience. I thought of the present Dalai Lama, who was deposed and desanctified by the Chinese invasion of Tibet and I devised a half-oriental gesture which might symbolise divinity, both hands raised, protecting the crowned head with a double blessing. 
I also took heart from an example nearer home. My movie-star colleague lived on location, surrounded by a little court of employees and fans, who guarded his security, carried his cash, laughed at his jokes, procured his women and gave me the creeps. One day he had told me how responsible he felt for the welfare of his sycophantic crew. 'It's like climbing a mountain, roped to them all. They depend on me not to slip. There's no-one above me to save me if I fall. Of course I won't fall but none of them realises how lonely it is at the top.' That cliché was it - although Richard, of course, puts it better:
 
'You have but mistook me all this while:
 I live with bread like you, feel want,
Taste grief, need friends... 

Richard II is a star. Show business is littered with the corpses of stars who have been unable to reconcile their public image with their inner insecurity. Richard is more resilient and he doesn't commit suicide. We had him, at the end, fighting off his murderers (as Holinshed records) like a lion. 

All this added up to a performance which was noted for breaking with the recent tradition of a limp-wristed playboy, cocking an elegant leg over his throne. Just as I was feeling rather pleased with myself, a letter arrived from an ex-critic, who analysed every detail in my supposedly innovative performance and said she had seen it all before, here and there, in Maurice Evans, Redgrave, Gielgud and John Neville. All the actor can do is try and inhabit these classical parts. He never owns them.


 

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