REVIEW [Or First Impressions?]: Richard II, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, October 2013.

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(c) Photo by Jillian Edelstein, design by RSC Visual Communications.

[A word of caution: if you intend on seeing Richard II and want all of its surprises kept intact, then abandon hope, all ye who enter here.]

When it was first announced that David Tennant was to play Richard II in Greg Doran’s production at the RST, I was quite excited. To start with, Richard II is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays. It’s so beautifully written, and also so very moving: I remember reading it for the first time around this time last year, sitting in the Shakespeare Institute library with my jaw agape because I had just finished reading 3.2. It’s where Richard fully realises the extent of Bolingbroke’s uprising, where he recognises the tide is turning against him, that the fact that he is ‘anointed’ won’t save him. And it culminates in that wonderful ‘hollow crown’ speech: ‘Our lands, our lives and all are Bolingbroke’s,’ he says, ‘And nothing can we call our own but death | And that small model of the barren earth | Which serves as paste and cover to our bones’. It dawns on you, the reader, that Richard is about to lose everything, and nothing he can own (not even his life) can be his anymore. The veneer begins to slip, you begin to see the pathetic little man behind the crown and the sceptre, and you can’t help but feel for him. I’ve never had a play have such an immediate emotional impact on me, just on the page.

But anyway. Back to 2013. I was excited about this production. But for some strange reason, I could not place Tennant in the role. I knew that he would be GOOD, at least, but I could not discern how he would approach it at all. I guess this wasn’t helped by the poster that was released, which now adorns the programme cover: a portrait of the actor sat back in a chair with the Westminster Portrait behind him (as seen above). It doesn’t really offer any clues as to what the aesthetic of the production may be, compared to other RSC productions such as this year’s As You Like It (which displays two muddy lovers kissing at Glastonbury, hinting at the festival-y, summery setting) and 2012’s Richard III (which emphasised the dominance of the female characters as they surrounded Jonjo O’Neill’s Richard as he sat atop a globe). But a picture of Tennant in jeans and trainers with a painting? What does that mean? Is it just emphasising the star quality of the production more than anything?

I guess this is the part of the review where I reassure the reader that Tennant is actually quite good in the role. He starts off as rather elevated, impossible to read, and also quite unpredictable and petty (his throwing down of his sceptre during Bolingbroke and Mowbray’s duel is played on a whim, almost out of sheer boredom). But as any good Richard does, he slides towards earning our sympathies as the production progresses: he’s particularly on fine form during 3.2, as we watch him break down in front of all his followers. I found myself constantly comparing his performance to that of Ben Whishaw’s in The Hollow Crown throughout the first half: whereas both portrayals present an effeminate, flighty, and fey king, Tennant’s differs to that of Whishaw’s in his playfulness and aggression: he pushes Emma Hamilton’s Queen around, ordering her to ‘be merry’, and violently grabs Michael Pennington’s John of Gaunt, despite the latter being on his deathbed. Whishaw’s aloof portrayal almost resembles some kind of Regina George figure (but, as Poly Gianniba points out, he clearly doesn’t want the responsibilities he’s been shackled with), but Tennant plays a rather child-like king, who veers from throwing temper tantrums to revealing an acute vulnerability when all is lost. And whereas the king’s homosexuality is only hinted at in The Hollow Crown, Tennant’s Richard forges a close connection to Oliver Rix’s Aumerle, sharing a tender kiss with him at Flint Castle. It’s this relationship that dominates this production: Aumerle takes the place of Exton in murdering the king, and his divided loyalties to Richard and his father (and additionally, Bolingbroke) torment him. Rix is particularly good in conveying the character’s pain, and compliments Tennant’s performance well: his slowly dissolving into tears as Richard ponders ‘What must the king do now? Must he submit?’ is quite poignant, leading to the tender moment that they share. Swinging their legs over the parapet, they are two boys standing alone against the world, with nothing else but each other.

Rehearsals for Richard II: (l-r) Richard II (David Tennant), Aumerle (Oliver Rix), York (Oliver Ford Davies)
Rehearsals for Richard II: (l-r) Richard II (David Tennant), Aumerle (Oliver Rix), York (Oliver Ford Davies). (c) Photograph by Kwame Lestrade.

Other than Tennant and Rix, there are some excellent performances from the rest of the cast: some have quite limited stage time, but still make an impact. Jane Lapotaire as the Duchess of Gloucester becomes the production’s pre-show, draping herself across her dead husband’s coffin — and continues to do so for the entirety of 1.1. Whereas I wonder if Doran wanted to get the most that he possibly could out of Lapotaire and of this small part, it works in that it centralises Gloucester’s death amidst the business that Mowbray and Bolingbroke have in the first scene. Thus, it provides a smooth transition to the following scene that Lapotaire shares with Pennington’s Gaunt, which is in itself quite tender and affecting. Naturally, Pennington goes on to completely nail ‘This royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle, | This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars’: raging against the dying of the light, it’s a performance of frustration, guilt, and regret. Hamilton is quite touching as the Queen, completely oblivious to her husband’s dominance over and disinterest in her. Oliver Ford Davies is not just funny as York, but can be also quite cruel towards his onstage son, and quickly becomes exasperated at his, and the king’s, actions. We can’t neglect Bolingbroke: Nigel Lindsay is similar to Rory Kinnear’s in his sheer imposing stature, but plays him as cocksure, cynical, and swaggering, although whether this too is nothing more than a veneer is up to debate. It’s also interesting to note that Lindsay played Ariel to Tennant’s Katurian in the National’s production of The Pillowman a number of years ago. Whereas I can’t judge what their dynamic may have been like in that production, and whereas the Richard/Aumerle relationship is emphasised more greatly than Richard/Bolingbroke, the antagonistic dynamic that Richard and Bolingbroke engage in reflects that of the bullish detective and the accused writer in McDonagh’s play. Only here, the dynamic keeps shifting: 3.2 reduces Richard to tiny little pieces, but the deposition scene has him running rings around Bolingbroke: refusing to let go of the crown, standing and shouting on top of his throne, and becoming Bolingbroke’s very own personal space invader armed with a mirror. And while Lindsay may not have an awful lot to say in this scene, his derisive laugh and gesturing after Richard following his departure conveys so much: a need to save face, an attempt to regain some control over what has happened.

The set, designed by Stephen Brimson Lewis, is simple. Once you enter the theatre, the initial pre-show with Lapotaire and the coffin, set in a black austere court, immediately makes an impression. Characters use minimal props, ascend an ascending or descending parapet, and the use of holograms, along with Tim Mitchell’s lighting, effectively conveys a sense of place for each scene: the world of the production is vaguely medieval, but not necessarily committed to it (but such is Shakespeare’s commitment to historical accuracy, anyway). But Brimson Lewis’ set deceives you with its simplicity (evoking Doran’s Macbeth and its bare, dark stage full of surprises): the floor opens up to reveal Richard’s bareboned prison towards the end, trapping him under the stage. It emphasises his isolation, solitude, and confinement, similar to Sam West’s performance of the soliloquy in a standing wooden box at the Swan in 2001. It is economical yet effective, and the same could be said of Paul Englishby’s score, which is dominated by the singing talents of three sopranos and a number of trumpets sounding.

So yes, I quite liked this production, and I’m excited to see it again soon in the Barbican. Runs in Stratford until 13 November, and runs in London from 9 December to 25 January.

POSTSCRIPT: Much thanks to Poly Gianniba for the long, interesting, stimulating twitter conversation about the production, some elements of which surfaced here and still linger in my thoughts regarding the play in performance. You can find her excellent (and unspoilery!) review here. Also, all references to the play have been taken from the most recent Oxford World’s Classics edition, edited by Anthony B. Dawson and Paul Yachnin (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011). A fantastic critical edition which I’d thoroughly recommend.

REVIEW: The Great Gatsby (dir. Baz Luhrmann, 20th Century Fox)

‘ah, something mildly interesting is in the distance’

[Brief warning: If you haven’t read the book and don’t want it to be spoiled, please don’t read this. Similarly if you haven’t seen the film, I guess. But seriously, read the book first. It’s better.]

There’s a moment early on in Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, as we’re told how Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) goes to Yale, ends up on Wall Street, and subsequently living in West Egg. ‘I always wanted to be a writer’, he informs us (or rather, his psychiatrist) in voice-over, as he comes across a large pile of books and picks up the first on top. ‘ULYSSES’ is the title of that book, as Nick wistfully and briefly considers it, then regretfully puts it back on top of the pile. This is a significant moment, folks: Artistic Temperament doesn’t matter here, as we quickly cut to a open book about markets and finance, telling us that right now for Nick, Money Matters and he’s going to sell his soul to the devil because hey, Wall Street right? This, my friends, is SYMBOLISM, and A PORTENT.

This perhaps sums up Luhrmann’s approach to adapting the film. Instead of adding in delicate touches and subtle details, he uses too broad a stroke. Judging by his previous work (Strictly Ballroom; Romeo + Juliet; Moulin Rouge!; Australia), Luhrmann tells great love stories between star-crossed or mismatched lovers, love stories that more then often end in great tragedy (‘Come what may, I will love you until my dying day’, sing along everybody!). The affair between Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Daisy (Carey Mulligan) is the anchor around which the novel fixes itself — and it becomes even more so of an focus in this adaptation, with lingering gazes, fingers grazing the other, and stolen passionate kisses, while Lana Del Rey wanly asks in the background, ‘Will you still love me when I’m no longer young and beautiful…?’ This, to some degree, works, leading to some very nice private moments between DiCaprio and Mulligan. But to focus so solely on making their love for one another the centrepiece of this film sacrifices the seedy, unfavourable aspects which underpin their relationship, and also sacrifices other aspects of Fitzgerald’s story which matter too. Sure, Gatsby isn’t who he claims to be, and he’s a fraud, but he does it all for Daisy so that’s alright, isn’t it? We also know that Daisy isn’t entirely perfect either, but the script never fleshes her out, and we never really find out what is wrong barring a few phone calls, the odd glass in her hand, her quivering voice, and THE ABSENCE OF THE KID (where is she, asks Kate Beaton? Here’s her answer). Positioning their relationship in the same framework as Christian and Satine or Romeo and Juliet doesn’t work, and ensures that we simply don’t care about them. In general, it’s a story told in too bold outlines, neglecting the subtleties and intricacies that make the novel so special to read.

The less than romantic aspects of the novel — the thin line of darkness, melancholy, and sadness — are neglected in Luhrmann’s film. Maguire’s Carraway gets carried away with it all, but he’s too bug-eyed, wide eyed, and cherub-like, nor does he possess the necessary complicity and world-wearyness that Nick needs. Nick in the novel is also reminiscent of the Bastard in King John in his idealism, loyalty, and lack of a clear moral compass (think of the commodity speech: ‘And why rail I on this Commodity? | But for because he hath not wooed me yet’), but instead, Maguire simply depicts him as an irritating, dislikeable Gatsbyite who writes the ‘novel’ to Deal With His Problems on the suggestion of his psychiatrist (I’m not sure if this framing device works, though there is a slight nice touch at the end concerning its title). Seeing as Nick is our guide into Gatsby’s world, and the audience’s point of view, this is a shame. Poor Elizabeth Debicki as Jordan Baker is resigned to the sidelines as her relationship with Nick barely gets a look-in, and is consigned to simply being Gatsby and Daisy’s Token Gal Pal. Thankfully, Joel Edgerton’s Tom Buchanan is a man you love to hate, but is unfortunately given a Benedict-Cumberbatch-in-Atonement moustache, because without it Luhrmann assumes that you wouldn’t be able to tell whether you can trust him or not.

Luhrmann’s greatest mistake, however, is cutting one of the most important, and most poignant, scenes from the novel. This is the scene where Nick meets Gatsby’s father, a man of humble origins, at his son’s funeral — a funeral which is notable for the fact that no-one from his infamous parties turns up to it. The film tries to grapple the novel’s concern with emphasising the gulf between Gatsby as a veneer and Gatsby as he really is, but Luhrmann’s decision to overlook a broad demonstration of this is confusing. Cutting his father, a living reminder of Gatsby’s past, perhaps robs the potential of reinforcing this gulf, and also creating a sense of pathos. It’s empty and melancholy, and for me, the saddest scene in the novel — and it is sadly missed from this film. (Non-sequitur: I have no idea if this is intentional or not, but did DiCaprio’s unconvincing appropriation of ‘old sport’ grate on anyone else either? Anyone?)

I don’t think I need to wax lyrical too much about the music; enough has been said about its usage. I do agree with those who think it’s distracting — these songs are good on their own, but they also take us out of Gatsby’s world. There seems to be an attempt to replicate a similar aesthetic to Moulin Rouge! in its patchwork appropriation of past and present, but in all fairness, as I’ve continued to emphasise, Fitzgerald’s novel is a completely different beast to a musical set in 1900s Paris which wears its debts to early cinema, cabaret, and Marc Bolan on its sleeve. I wonder whether Luhrmann is running out of ideas, or fails to realise that different sources of material may not respond well to the same techniques.

By focusing so much on making Gatsby look good rather than making us feel for the characters or illustrating its shallow underbelly, this ensures for a missed opportunity of a film. (That said, I’ve yet to see the Robert Redford version.) Poor DiCaprio and Mulligan try their best, but the end product is the equivalent of being hit in the face several times with a sledgehammer. We’re bored as a result. If you want a contemporary demonstration of the destruction of the American Dream, I suggest you go and listen to The National. Or perhaps go back and read the novel again.

The Great Gatsby, or, Fitzgerald with added bells and whistles.

Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio): shit-eating grin
Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio): shit-eating grin

I first read The Great Gatsby around this time last year, on a plane heading towards Newark via Heathrow, on the recommendation of one of my tutors at NUIG, in the spirit of If There’s One Thing You Need To Do Before You Visit Princeton, etc. I thoroughly enjoyed it (well, at the time it *was* my first pleasure read in about ten months), and ever since then, I’ve kept a close eye on the film adaptation, which will be arriving in cinemas in the next number of months.

I want to make one thing clear: I love Baz Luhrmann’s films. I honestly do (skipping Australia, I just never got around to that). My love for Shakespeare was shaped by Romeo + Juliet. Moulin Rouge! is one of my favourite films of all time, mainly because I’m a sucker for musicals and I only realised that two years ago (didn’t stop fifteen year old me play it repeatedly on DVD, however). Strictly Ballroom is sweet and romantic and has loads of wonderful dance moves and an animated sequence in the middle. And that Chanel advert, amidst the whole Why Won’t You Let Nicole Kidman Live Her Life, That Is, A Life With A Poor Hot Writer, was my first introduction to Clair de Lune and Debussy, and is generally quite gorgeous.

But after seeing the first trailer, as well as watching the recent second one, I am very concerned. The novel itself is set in a very distinct time period, just between the Great War and the Great Depression — so, in that case, you can either respect the world of the novel or go in a wholly different direction. Luhrmann seems to have taken the latter option, prompting many questions similar to the beat of ‘why can I hear Kanye West/Lana del Rey/Jack White in the background?’ (Here’s a link to an article describing his decision to go with Jay-Z as musical collaborator. I’m not sure if  ‘We knew we had to unlock for the audience a way of letting them feel what it was like to read Fitzgerald’s book in the 1920s – to be in New York City at that time’ necessarily should mean LET’S PUT HIP HOP IN THE FILM.) I’m not saying that that in general is a very bad idea: it worked very well for Moulin Rouge!, which itself did not make any claims to historical accuracy, and Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette wore its anachronisms on its sleeve to great effect. But are these 3D effects, Beyoncé Knowles, and dizzying camera angles truly representative of the heart of the novel? Feel free to disagree with me, but what stands out for me is the melancholy and the deep sadness at the novel’s core — that green light, which unfortunately is rendered very garishly in both trailers. At the moment, the film looks too much like a Harry Potter film, and whereas I wouldn’t mind a guilty pleasure flick that you hate to love but love regardless despite what everyone else may say, I don’t think Gatsby deserves that.

this is a film about mildly interested people.
this is a film about mildly interested people.

I’d be grateful for any thoughts. I know my experience of the novel doesn’t quite encompass what everyone else may think, so: what do YOU think? In the meantime, I recommend this to pass the time.