Julia Coffey prepares for her title role with ample research and a newly-shaved head.
I am a woman. I will be playing your king tonight.
It’s not the first time, of course. Fiona Shaw’s portrayal of Richard II in the 1995-1996 National Theater of London production drew both critical celebration and vitriol. What’s all this nonsense about a third sex? Some critics groaned. It was contentious. That was twenty years ago.
But it’s a different time now.
We head into rehearsal in a week, and I would be lying if I didn’t admit to some fears about how people will react, and that there might be an expectation for some grand statement attached to this casting choice. But as far as I’m concerned, my job, indeed my desire, is simply to play the role, just play the damn part! Along with our director, Davis McCallum, and the designers and fellow company members, I want to focus on making the world Richard lives in specific and his story engaging. There’s so much to dig into – my being a woman is really the least interesting part of his journey.
Gender & Sexuality
Davis and I often discuss Richard’s “other-ness”? Is he a-sexual? Ambi-sexual? Richard came to power at 10, is he a stunted man-child? Where do we see the intimate side of Richard underneath all that projected ‘majesty?’ In his intimacy with Henry Bolingbroke, his closest cousin and near-equal? This deep, boyhood relationship often looks homo-erotic, and Richard is often presented onstage as gay. Will my being female negate or enhance that sexual tension?
Why is Richard seen as a poor leader? Why does he have this reputation of being weak? Because he loses in the end? Or is there some emotional aspect that justifies the loss? Is he somehow not iconically masculine enough for this world? Richard is mercurial in nature. When the mask of kingship slips, he can be foolish, embarrassing, and wild. But Richard has fight in him. Even as he abdicates, he makes Bolingbroke pay by creating in the moment a very public and emotional un-kinging ‘ceremony.’ I wonder if and how I can change the way the audience views this king’s mettle as a leader.
Rise & Fall
Richard is not dumb, but he does have blinders on to the reality around him. As the nation of England witnesses the death of Divine Right and the birth of ‘Might’ through Bolingbroke’s self-determination, Richard awakens to a fresh hell, the notion of individual identity – something he’s never faced before…himself. What’s the best way to build the journey for the audience so that this fall is as hard and true and devastating as it possibly
can be, but also recognizable? “I wasted time, and now doth time waste me,” Richard laments in Act IV. There’s a vulnerability in the landing ‘thud’ that I hope encourages empathy for this un-king’d king.
Right now, I’m searching for Richard’s worldview – hoping it will inspire and feed me. I want to get in his headspace and poke around, build his internal point of view. It will be up to all of us in the rehearsal room to create and build Richard’s court, its rules and pageantry. This king believes himself to be a direct conduit to God. How would such a king touch people? What does he take for granted at his height that the loss of later will be deeply felt? How do we highlight Richard’s isolation as his court begins to fall apart? As for his physical life, I might see someone gesturing on a subway and say, “Oh my god! That’s the way I should stop the tournament!”
Getting to it
In a way, Richard’s language is the video he needs to watch to make his experience real to himself and ultimately make himself real to himself. That kind of in-the-moment self consciousness in the character helps me as an actor not to get overwhelmed by the larger journey. I can focus on details and trust that the puzzle pieces will all fit. I once had a mentor tell me it was okay to be a different person from scene to scene; that the audience would make sense of the journey in the end. King Richard can be many different people within a single scene – I think it will be fun to embrace that chaos for now…