Sapphic Cinema: Fiona Shaw’s Genderbending Richard II

There’s a popular misconception that Shakespeare’s plays are dry and dusty. Nothing could be further from the truth. The stories he told played with gender and subjectivity hundreds of years before gay culture made it fashionable.

Shakespeare’s knack for capturing the essence of human nature is why his work resonates across centuries, why his plays continue to be performed across continents. And – in my humble outsider’s opinion – the most significant stagings aren’t cautious productions married to theatrical convention. Instead, it’s the adaptations that dive headfirst into the in-between spaces that achieve greatness. No performance does this better than Fiona Shaw’s Richard II.

Back in 1995, Shaw played the lead in Deborah Warner’s production of Richard II. Shown at the National Theatre, this gender-bending Shakespeare adaptation proved controversial. “The stage version was received very enthusiastically by the audience at the national,” says Warner. But “the critical response was a vote.” Some critics were favorable. But the establishment was scathing.

Writing for the Independent, Andrew Temple commented that “a female Richard II is the sort of thing you might expect to see at the end of term in a boarding school but there is no history of the part being played by a woman professionally.… It is gimmick casting.” Similarly, the Daily Mail reduced Shaw’s performance to “curiosity value.”

Yet this production was a success. It traveled – first to the Salzburg Festival in Austria, then on to Paris. The European press was far less squeamish about King Richard being played by a woman. The magnitude of responses to her interpretation of Richard II led Warner to preserve it. And so, the film was born: “The idea came that we would find the budget to make it with one camera to shoot over two weeks in a studio. It was very important that we kept the strong visual qualities, and we could never have done this on the run.”

From a 3-hour stage production, Richard II has been streamlined to better suit this new format. Although the film lags a little in the opening scenes, it’s impossible not to get caught up in the unfolding drama.

Richard II is a charming man. But he is not a good king. Weak-willed and indecisive, his poor handling of a conflict between nobles ultimately leads to his downfall. Richard makes an enemy of his cousin Henry Bolingbroke (later Henry IV) by banishing him from England. Bolingbroke’s father, a wealthy lord, is broken by the loss of his son and dies. Richard seizes his money, land, and goods – all of which should have been Bolingbroke’s inheritance – to fund a hopeless war in Ireland.

While Richard plays at war, Bolingbroke’s allies help him sneak back to England. And when Richard comes home again, Henry not only reclaims his inheritance but takes the throne for himself.

When Richard is at the height of his royal powers, Shaw struts across the stage. She is pitch-perfect: imperious, commanding. And after Richard’s downfall, there is a rawness to her performance that makes it impossible to look away from this tragedy. Whether king or outcast, her Richard has a vulnerability that – in spite of his many mistakes – makes him a sympathetic character.

Wagner is of the view that “what matters most in an actor is imagination and intelligence. And gender falls away fast as being of grave importance. The moment you approach Shakespeare, the actor that speaks that text becomes that being.” While Shaw’s sex is no barrier to quality, it does add an interesting layer to this production.

Historically, since women were not free to pursue acting careers, female roles were played by men. Although women’s situation has improved, sexism still limits the types of female roles available in mainstream shows. Young women, more often than not, make top billing as (men’s) love interests. Older women tend to be shown as mothers – carers and cleaners, rather than life’s adventurers. In this context, casting Shaw as a male lead was hugely subversive.

And Shaw is a lesbian. Historians and creatives alike have speculated about the sexuality of Richard II. Shakespeare himself implied the characters of Bushy and Green were not only Richard’s favorites but his lovers. Henry Bolingbroke sentences them to die because, amongst other reasons, “you have misled a prince, a royal king… you have in manner with your sinful hours made a divorce between his queen and him, broke the possession of a royal bed and stained the beauty of a fair queen’s cheeks drawn from her eyes by your foul ways.”

In other words: you’ve been having sex with the king. Instead of having Christian hetero sex with her, he’s been having sinful gay sex with you. There is something remarkable about a lesbian actress bringing a possibly gay king to life.

Richard II is an extraordinary story. And Shaw is an incredible talent. This casting – unlike that of Richard and his queen – is a marriage made in heaven.

Deborah Warner’s Richard II is streaming on Amazon Prime now.