Politics, Poetry and Passion: Richard II in Bristol

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Photo by Graham Burke

Human emotion and political intrigue crackle through Richard II. History, politics, and feeling are all made vibrant by its rich poetic dynamic.


It is not surprising that Sir John Gielgud felt strongly that actors should be cast in this play on account of their different vocal qualities. Long stretches of Richard II require sustained vocal, poetic effects. The role of Richard II himself has tended to attract actors who are particularly sensitive to Shakespearian poetry, sometimes with a music-like quality in their vocal resonance.

Time and again critics have praised actors playing Richard for using their voices almost like musical instruments. Gielgud made the role very much his own for the twentieth century. His 1960 Caedmon audio recording is still a pleasure to listen to. Other notable Richards include: Sir Michael Redgrave (Stratford, 1951), Paul Scofield (Tennant Productions, 1952), Sir Ian McKellen (praised for the direct simplicity he brought to the verse-speaking for the Prospect Company’s 1968 production), Ian Richardson and Richard Pasco (alternating the roles of Richard and Bolingbroke for the R.S.C. in 1973), Sir Derek Jacobi (BBC Television, 1978), Jeremy Irons (RSC, 1986), Michael Pennington (English Shakespeare Company, 1987), Alex Jennings (RSC, 1990), Fiona Shaw (National Theatre, 1995), and Sam West (RSC, 2000).

Over the last ten years, I think it’s possible to notice a change of direction away from poetic Richards. There were Mark Rylance’s child-like, almost clownish Richard (Shakespeare’s Globe, 2003), Kevin Spacey’s crisp and convincing corporate version (The Old Vic, 2005), and Jonathan Slinger’s decadent portrayal (R.S.C., 2007-8).

Now it is the turn of John Heffernan, a rising star who cut his professional teeth with the R.S.C. in 2006 and has since moved on to successes at The National Theatre, most recently in The Habit of Art and After The Dance. Heffernan shines as Richard II (often regarded as an earlier version of Hamlet) because of the variety he brings to the role. He is by turns comic, sulky, sarcastic, petulant, simmeringly angry (with the occasional sudden outburst), movingly tender during his parting from the Queen, agonised during his long prison soliloquy, and ordinarily human when chatting with the Groom a few moments later. Heffernan’s voice has a natural musical timbre, but his performance is not primarily about making the role lyrical. It is about his inhabiting the part. The politics and his emotions come to the fore; the musicality of the role seems to sound almost inevitably.

Andrew Hilton’s simply staged production at The Tobacco Factory, Bristol, puts an energetic lyricism back into the heart of Richard II, recapturing and presenting afresh its poetry for the twenty-first century. As Susannah Clapp says in her Observer review, ‘the only concept is the uncovering of the dramatist’s words’.

Unlike most of Shakespeare’s other histories (with the exception of Richard III and Henry V), the evening really does belong to the King of the play’s title. Heffernan’s poetic and dramatic charisma convinced me that Matthew Thomas’s Bolingbroke (resolutely pronounced ‘Bullingbrook’) really should not become King. And there was superlative support across the rest of the cast: Benjamin Whitrow’s tired John of Gaunt, Paul Currier’s outspoken Bishop of Carlisle, Roland Oliver’s politically compromised (rather than only comic) Duke of York, Jack Bannell’s idealistic Harry Percy, and Oliver Millingham’s loyal Aumerle. The play’s few female roles often seem minor. Not so here. All of them resonated throughout Hilton’s production.

The Tobacco Factory’s Richard II is one of the most moving interpretations of the play I’ve seen. At its heart is a brilliant and compelling performance from John Heffernan, totally rooted in the play’s politics as well as its poetry.

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Author:Paul Edmondson

Head of Research and Knowledge and Director of the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival for The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Follow Paul on Twitter @paul_edmondson
  • Paul P

    Looking forward to seeing this on Saturday – never miss a Shakespeare At The Tobacco Factory, and this is one of my favourite plays. Credit, though, to the Observer for Susannah Clapp’s review, not the IoS – one or other of the Indies usually gets to the Tobacco Factory, but not yet this time as far as I know.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_6O7ZBVRIHAGDGLL7LTRDL35GRQ Sylvia Morris

    So pleased to see this post. This is one of the most moving productions I’ve seen, bravely emotional and beautifully spoken. Richard can sometimes wallow in self-pity but John Heffernan finds humour and humanity in the role. It’s a tribute to the cast that the performance doesn’t feel long even though it’s a very full text.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_F3VZ2FK5ZHF4FFVJV7RGBXP3SY Helen

    R2 is my favourite Shakespeare play.
    I was fortunate to see the Jonathan Kent/Ralph Fiennes one and the fantastic RSC Histories Cycle w/ Jonathan Slinger.
    I wish I wish I wish I’d been able to see Kevin Spacey’s .
    Thank you for this post.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1351820870 Charles Twigger

    Agree absolutely – thought John Heffernan was marvellous in the part! Might I add John Neville to your list who I saw perform Richard II at Nottingham Playhouse when it first opened and have never forgotten.

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