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One of the reasons Cambridge is such a desirable place to live is that there's always masses going on culturally, theatre, music, talks, random cool cultural and informative events. Lately nearly all our spare time has been taken up with attempting to move to Cambridge, so we haven't really been able to take advantage of most of it. Still, this week I was WFH Monday and Tuesday, so we had Monday evening free to take in a bit of Cambridge culture, and the Cambridge Shakespeare Festival is on at the moment.

We decided for no very strong reason to go for Richard II at Downing. So after I finished work I made a picnic and headed into town, and we sat on Parker's Piece in the sunshine and talked about cultural stuff and not about house-move logistics, and it was really nice. And drank bubble tea, Cambridge is getting way multicultural these days and has a proper bubble tea place.

We were both quite intrigued by seeing one of the less famous Shakespeare plays, and not having too many expectations of how it would go. To be honest, I didn't even know the plot, which is a bit embarrassing since the plot is in fact English history, but my history is basically non-existent between Romans-Saxons-Normans and Tudors-industrial revolution-WW1. Like, I was vaguely aware that Henry IV deposed Richard II, but I wasn't clear that Bolingbroke, the Duke of Lancaster and Henry IV were the same person, nor how all the descendants of Edward III fit together. I also never figured out who actually murdered Gloucester! So for me it was an exciting political intrigue, not a foregone conclusion.

Cambridge Shakespeare Festival have a thing where they try to always do Shakespeare "straight" and in period dress, but still, any production is, obviously, an interpretation, there's no purely traditional approach to a play. But since I hadn't seen or read Richard II, I hadn't formed an impression of how it should be done, so I found it helpful that the company tried to present the story to me without any embellishments, making the lines really clear and not relying on assuming I'd know what was happening. Mind you, for an "obscure" play, Richard II turned out to have quite a lot of recognizable lines, because Shakespeare is just all over our language. The sceptred isle speech is in this play, and For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings.

I didn't buy a programme because I assumed all the relevant info would be online, but in fact, no, they've chosen not to put any cast details on their website. So I have no idea who the actors were that I'm talking about. Certainly all the actors were good, CSF people always are, they are reliable for showing emotion without being hysterical or melodramatic, and for speaking Shakespeare's lines properly, clear and natural and without overdoing the metre or declaiming.

I particularly liked the two older dukes, John of Gaunt and the Duke of York. Both of them seem to be written a little bit ambiguously, a really plausible mix of deliberate political scheming and stating what they actually believe. Gaunt was was very physical, really working the fact that he's an old man at the start of the play, and I enjoyed the way he was torn between trying to promote his son's interests and trying to show his loyalty to the king and do what he believed is right. York was much more reserved and stately, you could rather imagine him as a CEO or something, and the contrast worked really well. I was really intrigued by his lines; he was very much the voice of, we should always be loyal to the king even if he's patently a bad ruler. Even though the play's sympathies are obviously with the usurper, York at least in this production seemed sympathetic, he was very different from the nobles who supported the king purely because they were toadies.

What about the two kings, then? Richard II himself was very good, very teenagerish (though I think he was actually in his 30s when deposed IRL). He bounced between being weepy and petulant and even hysterical, and being pompous and taking himself too seriously. It was possible both to see that he was a disaster as a ruler, and to feel sorry for him personally. Bolingbroke later Henry IV I wasn't so sure about. The characters kept talking about how he was so charismatic and popular with "the commons", but it was hard to see that, he seemed to have a single emotional tone, namely gruff. When he was on stage with Richard, he mostly just stood around waiting for the emotional outbursts to finish, with minimal reaction. And when he was winning the other nobles over to his cause he just stated his case completely factually.

I have a feeling the play was doing something a bit uncomfortable with masculinity. Richard II was bordering on camp, which is partly in the script, he loves fancy clothes and fine living and he's over-emotional. But this particular actor did quite a lot of mincing and limp-wristed gestures and tossing his hair, which I'd be ok with if it wasn't for the obvious visual contrast with Henry, who had a crew-cut and a square, solid stance and spent most of the play in plate armour and displayed no emotion.

Slightly heretically, I found much of the second half of the play basically pointless. It was obvious by interval that Henry had won, with Northumbria and Wales having gone over to his side and York refusing to oppose him. I didn't really need to see another hour of Richard being more and more humiliated until he was eventually murdered. There are some good moments in it, the confrontation at Flint when Richard physically steps down from the ramparts to meet Henry in the "base court", and the scene where he actually gives up his crown, but still. I found the forced separation of Richard from his wife unnecessarily cruel, particularly because in this production they had roughs physically pulling the two apart when they tried to kiss farewell. I really didn't care about the fate of York's son (which was very much played for laughs in this production, having his mother as a horsey type who doesn't know how to perform humility) or the slightly random restoration plot with the Bishop of Carlisle. In many ways I would rather have had a prequel showing the childhood of Richard II, all the political intriguing between the regents, something of Henry's backstory perhaps, and then have the first act be the second act, ending with Richard realizing that he's completely on his own.

Also, thank you to Kerry for some excellent commentary on the characters of Richard and Henry, that really helped me get more out of the play.
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Miscellaneous. Eclectic. Random. Perhaps markedly literate, or at least suffering from the compulsion to read any text that presents itself, including cereal boxes.

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