Performing royal history: Richard II

A photograph, hand-coloured in watercolour, of two children in medieval fancy dress: both wear short cream tunics with gold embroidery and pale blue collars with zig-zag hems, white stockings, and one blue and one white shoe. The taller child is perched on the edge of a Victorian wooden chair with an upholstered seat. He has his hand on the smaller child’s shoulder, looking at him, as they both hold an opened folder or slim volume. Two blue fabric hats, matching the collars, have been discarded on the chair and the floor; a white glove is on the floor by the chair.

In 1857, Charles Kean’s production of Richard II at the Princess’s Theatre, Oxford Street, London, became his greatest commercial success to date. Among his most loyal adherents was Queen Victoria, who took her family to see the play five times.

Richard II is an unexpected play to find such royal favour, focusing on the overthrow of a rightful king by a usurper. Yet Victoria seemed to find something almost uniquely engaging about this play and this production.

Kean was famously fastidious about 'historical accuracy', commissioning elaborate set designs based on detailed historical research. His single deviation in Richard II was the decision to set the final scene at St George’s Hall, Windsor Castle.

In making this change, Kean aligned Shakespearean history with the contemporary royal family, an alignment Victoria herself endorsed: the first performance took place in St George’s Hall itself.

A month later, the setting was carefully reproduced in painted scenery when the production opened at the Princess’s Theatre.

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