History about to complete itself

Shakespeare probably did not set out to write a complete cycle of history plays, and Terry Hands did not set out to direct one either.

Nevertheless when Richard II and Richard III are added to the Royal Shakerspeare Company's Stratford repertoire early next week, Hands will have directed all Shakespeare's eight history plays over a perios of five years, with Alan Howard in the leading roles. Abdul Farrah (designer) and Guy Wolfenden (composer) have also collaborated throughout.

It is an epic undertaking and it comes as something of a surprise to discover that the Richards (which open and close the cycle) are being presented this year for commercial as much as artistic reasons.

Richard II

"We had no intentiion of doing them this year but we were desperate for popular plays," Terry Hands explained. "We suddenly found ourselves doing them before we wanted to because we were in such dire financial straits last year.

Both are, as he says, "much-loved plays," although of markedly different character. "I suspect that this reflects the different audiences they were written for. Richard II was written for the young men of the Inns of Court. It's an aristocratic, witty play, conceited in the metaphysical sense, whereas Richard III seems intended for the open-air playhouse, and it's very much an actor's play.

"Richard III was one of the most popular plays of Shakespeare's own time and has retained its popularity. Richard II was a politically sensitive play in its time, and the Queen would not allow the deposition scene to be shown."

Although he has directed Richard III before, Hands has always put off doing Richard II. Three times he has been offered the opportunity of directing it at Stratford and he has turned it down in favour of The Merry Wives of Windsor, Pericles and, ironically, Richard III.

"It's odd finally to be coming back to it. Perhaps I was too young to understand it in those days. I used to see as self pity this man's desire to become nothing, because only that way can he find out who he is. Still, whenever I think I have begun to understand a Shakespeare play I usually find myself in trouble."

But the fact that he is treading new ground in Richard II should not, he thinks, mean that his Richard III will seem stale by comparison. "It's a such a rich cauldron of a play, and Alan Howard discovers extraordinary things in it. It's a very good company; we have the luxury, for instance, of Dicky Pasco playing Clarence, David Suchet doing one scene as King Edward, and Jane Shore has three lines.

"It's a great circus play; it's almost as though people come on and do a number. If you can get really good actors you get a marvellous extra push."

How much has the experience of working through the other history plays contributed to the productions? "It has helped because you know what it all led to: it makes you aware of the significance of the Bishop of Carlisle's prophecy in Richard II. And having done Henry V and knowing how obsessed he was with the murder of Richard II does enable you to put that extra weight here and there."

But doing the rest of the cycle has been no real help at all in terms of style, because "most of Shakespeare's plays are unique in writing, so that you need a totally different style for each of them."

On stylistic grounds, he believes the history plays were written in a haphazard sequence which bears no relationship to their chronological order.

"Richard II is closer to Love's Labour's Lost or Romeo and Juliet. People don't have lines to speak to each other, they have speeches. In Richard III the method is that one character comes on and says I am going to do the following, and then does it."

He dismisses the idea that there may be a Terry Hands style, preferring to see the plays dictate their own. Richard II, for example, demands considerable physical beauty in its big court scenes.

Under the watchful and admiring eye of Abdul Farrah, the RSC's workshops have been experimenting with unfamiliar metalwork techniques to equip the productions with an impressive glitter of heraldic badges and devices.

The designer explains: "We are starting as much as we can by imitating the late Gothic, and the stage should give an impression of gilded wood, with a combination of pageantry and ritual. So after Richard II's deposition you have a totally contrary world taking over, a far more practical, less glamorous world than the Gothic.

All this is achieved with economical means, and the design seems to have been approached very much from the actor's level, the weight and and feel of the swords and emblems they carry relating directly to their performance.

That way of thinking perhaps reflects the continuity of thought between a director and designer who have made a habit of working together. "Why do Abdul and I stick together?" asks Terry Hands. "I suppose because our vices tend to cancel each other out rather than accentuate each other."

Terry Grimley

The Birmingham Post, 29.10.80

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