There is a definitely modern quality about "Richard of Bordeaux" which makes it impossible to say of it, "Oh, just another one of those historical costume plays, full of clanking Gloucesters, Oxfords, and, by God, the Earl of Darby!" It is full of Gloucesters, Oxfords, and Derbys, and they do clank about quite a bit, but it also has something else woven in through all the clanking. It has an honestly written, clearly drawn characterization—that of King Richard the Second of England, who, until last week, I had vaguely thought grew up to be Richard the Third and murdered the little princes in the Tower.
This character was written by a soi-disant "Gordon Daviot" (who later turned out to be a Miss MacIntosh of Edinburgh, or Catherine of Aragon) and played with astonishing variety by Dennis King, who, I am afraid, is chiefly remembered in this country as a young man who put one foot on a chair and sang a loud song, with a male chorus, to a tankard of Burgundy, although I can go his program biographer one better and remember him very pleasantly in a Theatre Guild play called "The Lucky One"' ten or a dozen years ago. At any rate, Mr. King and Miss MacIntosh combine to give a specific and dramatic study of a young aesthete goaded too far. I did not see Mr. John Gielgud in the London production (an enormous success, by the way), but Mr. King satisfied me, insofar as I understood the part, and if I didn't understand it, it certainly wasn't the author's fault, for it was written with an explicitness which removed it completely from the customary Eaves Costume Company's line of kings who reign in most dramas of this sort.
It takes some time, as in all historical dramas, for an audience to settle down to understanding just who is who in "Richard of Bordeaux." The history of the fourteenth century in England is not common chitchat among Americans, and to hear Robert de Vere sometimes called "Oxford," and the Earl of Nottingham sometimes called "Thomas Mowbray," with Derby being interchangeably "Henry," "Bolingbroke," "Hereford," or "John of Gaunt's son," calls for a little regimentation before one can get into the swing of the story. Of course, one can read up on the period before going to the theatre, as dramatic critics do, or can consult the program each time a name is mentioned to see what the alias is, but, on the whole, it is better to just sit tight and hope that, before long, things will straighten themselves out and you can tell whom to hate and whom to like. This sitting-back process, however, sometimes runs the danger of resolving itself into a sound sleep.
There is no doubt about whom to hate when the Bucklers, father and son, are on. Hugh Buckler, as Gloucester (sometimes known as "Thomas of Woodstock"), and John Buckler, as Nottingham ("Thomas Mowbray"), have big voices and the bulk to swing them, and you know right at the start that they are up to no good. There is also no sleeping when the Bucklers are on. They constitute a valuable menace for any play which has a tendency to lapse into torpidity. Montagu Love, made up as "Ol' Bill, the Walrus" in the character of Arundel, is also definitely in the opposition. On the side of pleasant characters, we could be pretty sure of Francis Lister as Oxford and Margaret Vines as Anne, the young wife, no matter what they were called. And I think that it was Andrew Cruickshank who was excellent as the young secretary, although his name in the play was John Maudelyn, and you know what the English could do to that name.
The production of "Richard of Bordeaux" goes in more heavily for beautiful costumes than for scenery, but the costumes are really beautiful enough to make up for that strange, billowing greenery outside the palace at Sheen, which held its verdant aspect although an even stranger tree, evidently growing in the front hall, was laden down with snow. That tree worried me more than it should have.
On the whole, however, "Richard of Bordeaux" is a good thing for the public to have handy to offset dress-suit adultery, besides being a field day for the actors, and it is something you should see.