This is John's third blog entry for the 2003 production of Richard II in which he talks about the death of John Gaunt, learning lines, and costume in the production.
Transcript of Podcast
John Gaunt's Death
I’ve just finished a long rehearsal on John of Gaunt's death scene (ii.1). It's my biggest scene, Gaunt's key confrontation with Richard, and I was very nervous about running the scene at the end of the rehearsal. In the end, it went fine. During the rehearsal, Tim [Carroll, Master of Play], made Mark [Rylance, Richard] and I play the scene in lots of different ways. During this scene, Gaunt is essentially pointing an accusing finger at Richard, saying ‘I know you’re responsible for my brother, Woodstock (the Duke of Gloucester)'s death.’ Of course, we don’t know exactly what happened to him, but the play suggests it had something to do with Mowbray's recent visit to Calais, as he says:
‘…For Gloucester's death,
I slew him not, but to my own disgrace
Neglected my sworn duty in that case.’
It is suggested that although Mowbray didn’t kill the Duke himself, he did nothing to protect him from the murderers who may, or may not have been sent by Richard himself. Interestingly, Mowbray refuses to admit what actually happened when Bolingbroke calls on him to “Confess [his] treasons ere [he] fly the realm” (i.3.198), suggesting that he has committed no treason as his actions were ordered by Richard, his divinely-appointed king, whom he also assures earlier in the scene that “Truth hath a quiet breast” (i.3.96).
The Divine Right of Kings is a key element of the play; to what extent is it lawful to depose a divinely appointed king. I have come to the conclusion that John of Gaunt firmly believes in the Divine Right; you can see it in i.2 where he has a long conversation with Woodstock's wife, the Duchess of Gloucester. As the scene opens, she is reprimanding Gaunt for taking no action to revenge Gloucester's death. Though Gaunt believes Richard is responsible for the death, he adamant that only God can revenge his brother:
“God's is the quarrel; for God's substitute,
His deputy anointed in His sight,
Hath caused his death; the which if wrongfully,
Let heaven revenge, for I may never lift
An angry arm against His minister.”
In a way, I think Gaunt is sitting on the fence, using the Divine Right argument to avoid getting involved with what is essentially a family affair, and which he, as an elder member of the family, should try to resolve. The play is essentially a family tragedy; Gaunt, Bolingbroke, York, Aumerle, Richard – they’re all members of the same family and I think it's that fact that allows Gaunt to be so brusque with Richard in ii.1. The situation is also heightened by the fact that Gaunt, despite being a Knight of the Garter and a member of the Privy Council, has effectively been sidelined by the emergence of Richard's flatterers: Bushy, Bagot and Greene. Gaunt knows he is dying and sees this meeting as his last opportunity to drum some sense into his nephew.
First, we tried the scene playing it very politely, very formally; everyone was very careful to bow properly and at the proper times. Then we tried it again, but without any such formalities. Tim [Carroll] then encouraged us to try the scene several times and experiment with exactly how ill Gaunt is when he meets with Richard; once, we tried the scene having Gaunt die on stage in front of Richard. After experimenting with a few more ways of playing the scene, we have now put together a patchwork of approaches to different parts of the scene which will provide it with a structure and yet encourage us to keep it very fiery and spontaneous. There are some aspects of the scene that will probably remain similar throughout rehearsals and the run: for example, Mark [Rylance]'s Richard is very shifty in this scene; as soon as any mention of Gloucester comes up, he is suddenly unable to look anyone in the face. Another such aspect is Gaunt's illness; although he is very ill, he is not so ill that he cannot get up from his chair and almost physically threaten Richard. We now have a basic structure of the formality and physicality of the scene and we will probably not rehearse the scene too many more times before we open. Tim [Carroll] is rightly cautious about our becoming too set in our ways with each scene, always moving to exactly the same places at the same times, saying our lines in exactly the same way. It's far better to not keep going over scenes again and again; now that we have our basic structure, we can explore the scene afresh each time.
Gaunt's belief in the divine has also cropped up in rehearsals for i.3, the duel between Bolingbroke and Mowbray. All seem agreed that God will choose the victor of the duel, but Richard then stops the fight before it really gets underway. He then withdraws with his councillors before coming back to the combatants and delivering his verdict on their futures. Each time we do the scene, those of us in Richard's council improvise a hasty discussion where we advise Richard on what to do. Bushy, Bagot and Green urge Richard to stop the fight and banish them both, whereas I find myself improvising saying to Richard ‘Why did you stop the fight? A few weeks ago you said ‘God will settle it’, here we are, and now you’ve stopped it again and you’re putting me in the position of having to pass judgement on my son.’ Gaunt is inevitably outvoted, and Bolingbroke banished. What is infuriating for Gaunt is the way in which Richard keeps changing the rules; almost immediately after he banishes Bolingbroke for 10 years, he reduces it to 6. Although he claims to do this out of compassion, it's proof that he is wholly inconstant in his decisions.
I’m now putting a lot of effort into making sure my lines are secure. Most of my lines, and all of my lines as the Gardener, are in verse. We’ve been having classes with Giles [Block, Master of the Words], exploring metre and verse structure; whether lines are made up of iambs, trochees, alexandrines etc. In those classes, we don’t look at extracts from Richard II but from other plays by Shakespeare, e.g. 1 Henry VI, instead. Different actors have different approaches to learning verse. I imagine that each line has to ‘fit’ over 5 points/beats, like 5 dots on a dice. Technically, the line will fit several ways, but you have to choose the way that makes most sense of the line. However, not every line fits within the 10 syllables of strict pentameter. Some lines contain 11, or even 12 syllables. I was speaking to Giles about one particular line: “As near as I could sift him on that argument,” (i.1.12) which has 12.syllables; there is no way to get around putting in an extra beat. Giles assures me that Shakespeare often does this, unlike Marlowe, whose pentameter is breathtakingly regular.
I’ve been called for several costume fittings over the last few weeks. As Gaunt, I’ll be wearing doublet and hose, mainly in black and green. As the keeper of Pomfret Castle, I’ll mainly be wearing my old costume from 1997, when I played Pistol in Henry V; jerkin and breeches, which is fantastic! I suggested to Jenny [Tiramani, Master of Clothing and Properties], that I could wear a white wig underneath my hat as the gardener, but this will be impossible, as the I’ll have to take my hat off to Queen Isabella, and because the wig would need to be attached to the brim of the hat (to allow me to put it on and take it off quickly), this could be a problem…