The Rutgers Conservatory at Shakespeare’s Globe is an extraordinary opportunity for its participants. Transferring to London from Rutgers University for two terms of their third year, students on the University’s theatre programme take an intensive training course with scholars and practitioners at the Globe, culminating in two public performances on the Globe stage. Richard II was the first showcase of the Rutgers Conservatory work I’ve seen, and on the basis of this I look forward to returning in future years.
Twenty-six students burst through the tiring house doors, laughing, smiling, singing and playing instruments. They waved at the audience, came down into the pit, shook hands and greeted friends and family. The infectiously celebratory atmosphere swelled into a rousing choral rendition of Coldplay’s Viva la Vida, the company stomping out rhythms and singing full-heartedly, selling the camaraderie of the tightly knit ensemble. And then, a crown appeared, beginning an entertaining scramble. The actors grabbed the crown from one another before anyone could get it on their head, passing it about, pretending to drop it, and keeping it moving constantly; until, suddenly, it fell into the hands of Jaevon Williams, who slowly placed it on his own head. The laughter stopped, the fast playfulness turned to formal solemnity, and Richard II began.
The joyful opening rather belied the production, which offered a very full text of Richard II and a much more conventional use of the Globe space, but it beautifully captured the unique nature of this young ensemble. In some ways, the structure of the performance stood as a synecdoche of the students’ training – first celebrating their own identities, then exploring the various affordances of the Globe space (which, stripped of speakers, lighting rigs, stage extensions etc., looked refreshingly bare), and concluding with a long and nicely choreographed jig that reversed the journey, beginning with formal steps and ending in delight with the students laughing and coming back together with a shout. The production showed off their command of and comfort in the space, and under Bill Buckhurst’s direction they made it their own.
The company was split into two halves, with the other half taking the lead in the accompanying production of 1 Henry IV (playing the next evening). To even out the roles more, and presumably acknowledging the complexity of the roles, Bolingbroke and Richard were both played by multiple performers. Williams played the somewhat effete King of the play’s first half, while still in power, and supported by Tia Cassmira McDonald’s Green and Rebecca Mellinkoff’s Bagot, who simperingly approved his blunt dismissals of Gaunt’s weakening. Williams then passed his crown and robes to Miles McKinley, who played a more depressive Richard in his downfall, first in the return from Ireland and then descending at Bolingbroke’s demand. For the final movement – the deposition scene until the murder – Lili Cheong played a bitterly sarcastic, defeated ruler, withering in the contempt held for Bolingbroke. The three Richards turned a practical decision into a thematically coherent delineation, reading his experience in phases that that made visible the catastrophic changes in his condition and status.
Richard was mirrored by the Bolingbrokes. Sydney D. Mitchell dominated much of the play’s first half with her aggressive, dynamic Henry. Set in opposition to Stuart Kimball’s Mowbray, the opposition of these two fierce fighters threw into relief Williams’s delicate Richard, and established both opponents as men to be feared. Mitchell’s confidence was compelling from the start, particularly in a lovely moment as Richard approached to embrace Bolingbroke and he instead grabbed and kissed his hand; even in such a small way, Bolingbroke insisted on having things on his own terms. Mitchell passed over to Christopher Lysik for Bolingbroke’s return, now more of a politician, manoeuvring his allies and victims, and gleefully anticipating his own throne.
The company’s use of the stage space was simple but effective throughout, making a virtue of minimalism. There were no thrones here, and the gallery was used for musicians – the ‘B’ company appearing periodically to make wine glasses sing or accompany the action with violin. The main stage was set up to allow for formal entrances from the central door, and the corners used as scenes spread out – particularly during the comedy of the Yorks’ domestic squabble, where every corner of the stage came into play as York, Aumerle and the Duchess ran back and forth in panic. Perhaps most effectively and dramatically, though, Bolingbroke’s army arrived to depose Richard in the pit, and Richard came out to meet them on the stage. When Richard descended, therefore, he came down into the pit. The audience dispersed to create a large ring, in which Richard and Bolingbroke faced off against one another among the people, a brilliant showcase for McKinley and Lysik.
Moments such as this showed the company’s ease with the Globe space. The pit was similarly used for banishments – Mowbray, Bolingbroke and later Exton all leaving through the audience – and for the arrivals of messengers and soldiers. Murderers emerged wearing hoodies from among the audience, and the Bishop of Carlisle (Kimball again) took issue with Bolingbroke as if the populace shouting up at their new leader. It was here that the ensemble basis of the production established at the start paid off; by design or accident, I heard the aspects of the production reflecting on the people far more clearly than I’ve ever heard them before. Whether Isabella (Paula Sim) tenderly comforting Richard as he was escorted in chains, or York (Joel Alexander Acosta) describing Bolingbroke’s affection from the masses, this outward-looking production kept reflecting on its actions’ implications for the populace.
There was too much going on to comment on everything, but the company found freshness and immediacy in a variety of moments, including scenes that I’ve rarely seen staged such as the beginnings of the conspiracy to murder Bolingbroke and Exton’s plan to kill Richard. Cheong got some of the juiciest material. Her snark during the deposition scene was particular effectively, discomfiting Bolingbroke with her taunt of ‘Here, cousin’ and Richard’s initial refusal to let go of the crown. When Richard was given the looking glass, a violin began playing and the whole company gathered behind him to share the gaze into his reflection; as a result, when the mirror fell to earth and smashed, the whole company leapt in shock. Later, Cheong put up a tremendous fight during the assassination scene, dispatching two assailants in a decent fight sequence before being stabbed from behind, and dying against a pillar.
The performances were uniformly strong, and I’m loath to miss anyone out when the whole company was working so hard. Sophie Hearn did triple duty as the production’s music arranger (with Lysik), as a dignified and crystal clear Duchess of Gloucester with black veil, and as a fatigue-wearing Hotspur, who fan-boyed over Bolingbroke hilariously. Amela Karadza was the actor with the most consistent through-line, playing Aumerle for the whole duration, and offered one of the strongest arcs. This bookish Aumerle was protective and yet scared of Richard, tentatively joining the King on the sand at the beach, before becoming disaffected and then terrified yet again as he was pulled into various murder plots. Under siege from the other nobles during the gage-wearing, Karadza’s Aumerle cut both a comic and a strangely tragic figure, lost in seeming indecision but utterly committed to the moment; faced down by powerful performances from Kai Heath and others as a series of opposing lords, she simply ended up collecting gloves. And Carmen Berkeley made a strong early impression as an unusually hardy John of Gaunt, who relied heavily on a crutch but remained standing during Richard’s visit to his death bed. Gaunt’s defiance of Richard was so vociferous that Richard marched across the stage and grabbed him by the lapels, to everyone’s shock.
By the time the production reached its close, the new order of things was apparent. Ty Molback’s cold, besuited Northumberland, an effective and bloody administrator, wrapped up the dead bodies by leafing through papers (I’m sorry to miss seeing him continue the role in 1 Henry IV), and Bolingbroke seemed all-powerful. But as Delfin Gökhan Meehan’s Exton dragged Richard’s coffin through the central doors, Bolingbroke screamed in terror. He knelt by the coffin as the company turned their backs on him, Aumerle the last to turn away, and they collectively sang a lament as Bolingbroke promised penance. It was an emotive end, and a powerful conclusion to an effective and finely executed performance.