With an idea that can frankly only be described as the right side of insane, Not the Way Forward Productions have rehearsed and filmed a fully digital production of Richard II during the vac lockdown, streaming free online from the 5th-8th of May.
Richard II was the first of Shakespeare’s Henriad history plays. For a long time (arguably, even now) it was regarded as unnecessarily anachronistic, written entirely in verse and containing vocabulary already considered archaic to a contemporary audience. But, for all its bad rep, it is a fantastic play. This is a play about private and whispered conversations, about plotting, and feeling the loneliness of power. Richard is a rather feeble king, overseeing an irredeemably divided England. He is tragically inadequate, wrongly convinced of a divine-ordained right to rule, a conviction which collapses when earthly power is forcibly stripped from him at all turns. I ask Dorothy McDowell, the director of the production, some questions about the production and what drew her to this choice of play.
“I’d decided I wanted to make a show about ‘choice’, because I think the thing that makes the situation we’re all in at the moment scary is the fact that we don’t have any choice about what happens next. Besides, I’d just been put in a position of not having any choice over the kind of show I was going to make (it had to be online), so I felt I had to acknowledge that in the show itself. Richard popped into my head and I realized that it’s all about choice – it’s about people being forced to pick a side in a civil war; and about other people causing that civil war by stealing money and raising armies and then claiming that they didn’t have any choice in the matter….This isn’t the way I’d choose to tell this story; but it isn’t the story that any of the characters would choose to have told about them either.”
Whether or not the characters would have chosen to have their story told like this, in the few scenes I see as preview, the story is told very well. Lola Beal, playing the Duchess of York, is particularly strong. She sits on her bed with books littered all around her and a soft yellow light streams through her curtains. The fluidity with which she delivers her lines makes me strangely forget that this is likely her childhood bedroom, happily maintaining the suspension of disbelief that this is a normal format through which to watch Shakespeare’s words being performed.
As well as the content of the play, I’m fascinated by the technicalities of the production. The show is a hybrid mix of play and film, shot in advance and in single scenes but also using long continuous takes to mimic the viewing perspective of a play. I ask Dorothy if she feels the lack of set and minimal costume felt like stripping back of a full production.
“‘Stripping back’ a production is perhaps not quite the right term here, because we didn’t have to alter an existing production idea to make the show, but rather devised it specifically for the conditions of lockdown. But making it under such rigorous restrictions did teach me a lot. How much I miss audiences, stage tricks and blank spaces, of course, but also how a good actor can turn in a good performance under any circumstances; and how part of what I like about stories about kings and queens is the ability to take greatness and make it seem ordinary.”
As a pre-trailer, a short and amusing video is released on the show’s Facebook page charting some of the behind the scenes of the rehearsals. When I think of how my course-mates and I encounter no end of struggles even just getting through seminars I feel rather in awe of the cast and crew carrying out a whole rehearsal schedule via video-call.
“The main differences were a lack of warm-ups and games (most of which require either physical contact or a level of noise unlikely to be tolerated by family members on conference calls). There’s more of a focus on verbal performance than on physical (our concept is all about fly-on-the-wall viewing, so big movement ideas were out). Other than that, lefts and rights are surprisingly hard over Zoom, as is useful directorial miming. Also, you don’t realise how bad laptop camera quality is until you’ve asked someone to move ‘a feather’ out of the shot, only to be told that the thing you’re pointing at is, in fact, part of a structural support beam for their ceiling.”
Fly-on-the-wall viewing seems like a good way to describe the process of watching the scenes that I’m sent as a preview. The production gives me the curious feeling of listening-in to someone else’s facetime uninvited, there’s something secretive and intrusive in this watching which makes it bizarrely hard to look away. When John of Gaunt (Mary Lobo) utters the coldly threatening: “I mock my name, great queen, to flatter thee” I’m briefly reminded of the dynamics of the iconic four-way call in Mean Girls.
Watching the characters speak through my own rather crackly laptop speakers, I am struck by how, alone in my room, I strangely feel more included and complicit in the scene which unfolds than I might have done had I been sitting with the rest of the audience in the dark anonymity of a theatre. The pace and feeling of proximity varies between scenes. At times the camera is on the other side of the room to the character speaking, we get to listen as they move in and out of shot, unconscious of being documented. Other times, such as in a conversation between Henry Green, William Bagot and Richard II in the first act, the camera angle takes the audience more into the fray. The three of them look into the camera as though it were a mirror, plotting with each other over the phone as they apply make-up and seem to get ready for a night out.
Despite the lack of physical posters being papered around Oxford, the marketing team has other tricks up their sleeves. Personality quizzes start to pop on my Facebook feed, tagged with their slogan ‘time to pick a side’, playfully engaging with the agony of choice which riddles the play. Having taken the tests, signed up for my free ticket and cleared my (empty) calendar for opening night, I certainly am really looking forward to the show. I’m curious though to ask Dorothy to pick a side herself and ask her if she has a favourite character. She tells me:
“I’ve always been very fond of Richard – who is, in my opinion, the most relatable of all Shakespeare’s kings. I too, given the chance, would spend most of the English exchequer on parties.”