The Theatre and the Presence Chamber: History, Performance
The set for the RSC’s 2000 Richard II is self-consciously sparse. It consists of a long, low, wooden box centre stage, with a gold chair on it; not a golden chair, an ornate chair, but a distinctly ordinary-looking chair, sprayed gold. The chair has a crimson jacket hung on its back and a gold circlet on its seat. Centre right is a grave-shaped mound of earth. The box, the chair and the mound are placed in a white room, the RSC’s Other Place studio theatre, which players and audience share. We are all dimly lit in fluorescent purple. Large, white double-doors centre stage, with white alcoves either side, provide upstage entrances. There are three more doors in the side walls of the playing space, seemingly not part of the mise en scène. One of them has a Fire Exit sign on it. More chairs-plain white versions of the gold one-stand around the
walls. A peal of hand-bells sounds. Actors enter through the double doors, wearing, for the most part, jackets and trousers in deep purples and reds; they smack of luxury, of haute couture.5 The actors stand in frozen tableau, looking at the chair on the wooden box. Samuel West, who is to play Richard, enters from the raked seating where he has been sitting with the audience. He has been reading a copy of Richard II. He walks up stage right and bolts a door, one of the ‘real’ doors in the wall of the studio, a door that leads to another part of the building. He sits down on the end of the wooden box and speaks a Prologue, constructed from the first lines from Act 5 Scene 5 of the play-Richard’s ‘prison’ soliloquy:
I have been studying how I may compare This prison where I live unto the world, And for because the world is populous, And here is not a creature but myself, I cannot do it. Yet I’ll hammer’t it out. (5.5.1-5) …Sometimes am I a king, Then treasons make me wish myself a beggar (5.5.32-3) Then am I kinged again, and by and by Think that I am unkinged… And straight am nothing…(5.5.36-8) Thus play I in one person many people, And none contented. (5.5.31-2) …But whate’er I be Nor I nor any man that but man is With nothing shall be pleased till he be eased With being nothing. (5.5.38-41)
This figure appears at ease in the white room with the audience, though the measured, emphatic delivery of this transposition suggests something of an intellectual struggle with the concepts contained in the speech. The words ‘king,’ ‘kinged’ and ‘unkinged’ are given a weight that emphasises the grammatical strangeness of the second two words. West rises and ‘kings’ himself, putting on the jacket that has been resting on the gold chair and fitting the gold circlet on his head. He and Alfred Burke as Gaunt introduce the dispute between the magnates Bolingbroke6 and Mowbray and West ends this first exchange of the play with the line ‘Then call them to our presence’ (1.1.15) transposed from a few lines later in the scene. He places his foot on the centre stage wooden box and the ‘frozen’ company of actors shift forward fractionally; it is as though, while waiting for ‘Richard’ to start the play,
they have made the tiniest of false starts to the scene. Then, as West steps onto the box, harsh white lights snap up on both audience and playing space and the actors move to their positions for 1.1.