Review of Shakespeare Theatre's Richard II

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Review of Shakespeare Theatre's Richard II

I have never seen a Shakespeare play performed live on stage before, so going to see the Shakespeare Theatre Company's presentation of Richard II was a completely new and mind-blowing experience for me.  Reading a play is definitely no match for seeing it performed.  I think that we had very good seats that allowed an excellent view of the stage; close enough to see the actors, but high enough to see the ebb and flow of the action.  The stage floor was very interesting because it looked like some kind of mottled marble for the indoor scenes, but also managed to work as bare ground for the external scenes.  The props were very minimal for the most part, consisting of chairs, benches, and the occasional wall or table.  I liked that because it allowed me to focus more on the actors.  The background set of the castle entrance, walls, and ramparts was very detailed and impressive as well as multifunctional.  The detail on the stonework was amazing!

There were a couple of things with colors that I noticed.  First, even though Richard is considered to be a poor king, he is always dressed in white and gold.  Even at the end when he is languishing in his prison cell, he wears white.  Bolingbroke, on the other hand, is dressed in black, despite the fact that the commons consider him to be a better and more worthy king than Richard.  Bushy, Bagot, and Green wear green, perhaps a sign of their poisonous influence as well as a visual reference to their status as "the caterpillars of the kingdom."  But, in contrast, Aumerle wears blue, which makes him stand out from Richard's other lackeys as one of the most loyal of Richard's friends.  Also, I noticed that all of the dissenters who support Richard wear grey.  In the opening scene, Gaunt and York are wearing the red robes of advisors, but Gloucester wears grey.  The three conspirators Northumberland, Lord Ross, and Lord Willoughby each wear grey.  As the number of dissenters grows, Richard's bright robes become further and further eclipses by black and grey storm clouds, like a sun being hidden by a storm.    

I was very, very impressed with Michael Hayden's performance as King Richard II.  His flamboyance and highly emotional presentation were perfect for showing a spoiled, naïve, child-like ruler who was really not ready to handle the massive responsibility that comes with being a king.  In the opening scene, he signs papers without even reading them, and during Bolingbroke's speech condemning Mobray for killing Gloucester, Richard does not appear to be paying attention, fiddling with his jewelry and looking bored.  He's also a very nervous and paranoid king, starting when Bolingbroke accuses Mobray of being sent to kill Gloucester and physically shying away from Mobray when Mobray gets upset about being banished.  Also, when Richard returns from Ireland to find so many of his followers defecting, he reacts like a child again, hardly daring to believe it, clinging to the idea that he "can't lose" because he is God's chosen representative on earth.   It's obvious that he's trying to convince himself and is very much out of his league.  Throughout that scene, Richard is stammering, faltering, looking for reassurance and comfort in those around him.  It reminded me of a friend of mine who can't bear to be alone, who always needs others around.  Watching him falling into despair, saying that he is just a human being like everyone else, and yet the king has to be more than human or not human with none of the human weaknesses or failings, made me feel much more sympathetic towards him than I did at the beginning of the play.  I could see that Richard really wasn't a bad person, just one ill-suited to be king.  His inattention, uncertainty, immaturity, and tantrums do not inspire confidence in him as a leader, which shows why so many people started turning against him and support Bolingbroke's claim to the throne.

The two confrontations between Bolingbroke and Richard as contenders for the crown were very intense and well done.  The first came on the steps of Flint Castle when Bolingbroke comes as a "humble" supplicant for his father's lands.  Richard looks very kingly on the ramparts (although York's line about that was cut), but it is just an act that he tries to keep up when he comes down to face Bolingbroke directly.  I loved Richard's line, "Your heart is up, I know, thus high at least, though your knee be low."  The bitter irony and clashing wills can be felt and seen throughout their entire interaction.  There are flashes during the exchange of an iron will lurking beneath Richard's flamboyant and childish exterior, but he can't sustain it and ends up crumbling before the force of Bolingbroke.
I thought the deposition scene, and the second confrontation, illustrated the difference between the two men the best.  Richard enters the stage very hesitantly, looking for friendly faces and finding none.  He tries to stand by Bagot, but is rejected.  As the only one in bright gold and cloak-less surrounded by a wall of impassive black and grey robes, Richard's isolation is palpable.  When Richard and Bolingbroke stand, each holding the crown, their very poses showed how different they are.  Richard stands with his feet together and arm bent at the elbow in an effeminate fashion.  Bolingbroke stands with his legs apart and arm rigidly outstretched in a more aggressive, masculine manner.  This juxtaposition of the two leaders over the crown shows the clash of wills and ideals between them and marks the turning point of a kingdom.   However, when Richard's body is brought before Bolingbroke, he reacts in almost the same way Richard did when Mobray killed Gloucester:  feigned shock at the deed, exile for the executor to protect his secrets, and expressed remorse.  I think this showed how this new king really is like the old one, up to the same kinds of tricks, feints, and betrayals.
It was ironic how, in Richard's death scene, his cell rises out of the stage, since, in fact, he is descending into imprisonment and eventually death.  He's still in white, but it's a simple dirty sheet, a far cry from the glitter and pomp of the court.  I was expecting a little more movement in this scene, but he remains seated through most of the soliloquy.  Speaking of Bolingbroke sends him to his feet and into a rage, the first real deep rage I'd seen from him, not a shallow tantrum.  Richard has finally reached a point of maturation and understanding about the reality and responsibility of a king.  He understands what has happened, why it happened, and where he went wrong.  There is a glimpse of his old self when the groom comes in and Richard laughs when he calls himself an ass and embraces the groom in thanks for his support.  I kept hoping that he would be able to fight free, now that he finally understands what it means to be a king, but, alas, it was not to be.

I also liked the interesting depth and ambiguity that Hayden brought to Richard's character by making him very physically affectionate.  Throughout the play, Richard touches, hugs, or kisses almost everyone, male and female.  I know people who are that affectionate naturally with no sexual or romantic meaning behind it, but some of the bonds Richard shows with some of his friends, such as Aumerle, made me think there was more than simple affection and friendship going on.   The scene on the battlements of Flint Castle revealed the tight bond between Aumerle and Richard as Richard's kingly façade for Northumberland crumbles and he confesses to Aumerle that he cannot hold out and Bolingbroke will soon take his crown.  He's simply trying to buy time and feels debased by having to crawl before traitors like Northumberland.  That moment between the two of them was very touching.  However, I don't think Richard was portrayed as being homosexual, but rather bisexual because of the tender scene between him and his wife Isabel when they are forced to part.  That scene brought tears to my eyes, it was so emotionally charged (and Rachel Holmes's only good acting in the play.)  It is also interesting to note that the amount of touching helped to show who Richard liked, trusted, or respected.  Likewise, it also showed who he feared or disliked.  For example, Richard touches and embraces his friends Bushy, Bagot, and Green because they are his close friends and advisors.   When Mobray was in his good graces, Richard touched him, but when Mobray was banished, Richard kept distance between them.   I also thought it was intriguing how Richard embraced Bolingbroke, his replacement, at Flint Castle, but not once in the entire play does Richard touch Northumberland.  In fact, he tries his best to avoid physical contact with Northumberland.  Perhaps that is a sign of how much a turncoat like Northumberland is reviled, a man and family who plotted to take Richard off the throne and put Bolingbroke in his place, but, within a few years, plotted a second time to remove him when they were not suitably rewarded.  

Speaking of Northumberland, I absolutely loved Derrick Lee Weeden.  His voice was a pleasure to listen to, very rich, deep, and authoritative that could be commanding, manipulative, or playful.  Weeden definitely used tone and pauses to his advantage in portraying Northumberland.  His multifaceted voice helped show what a clever politician Northumberland is in his dealings with his fellow conspirators, Richard, and even Bolingbroke.  I especially enjoyed the scene when he is talking to Lord Ross and Lord Willoughby about what can be done about Richard.  It is clear that he is the leader and mastermind and I could almost see the puppet strings reaching from his mouth into their ears.  I'll bet Bolingbroke took some lessons from Northumberland; I could see similar parallels in manipulation when Bolingbroke reassures the Duke of York that he doesn't want the throne, only what belongs to him.  That false ring in his voice is just one of many little details that I never would have caught simply reading the play.   

I think that Lady York was the best secondary character in the play.  She was an amazing bit-part, and I think Naomi Jacobson made the most of out her role.  It was a wonderful performance.  I could see that she was the one who really ruled the York household.  I laughed so much when she chased after Lord York and stole his boots.  She has an acid tongue and wouldn't let Bolingbroke or York get a word in edgewise while begging for Aumerle's life.  (Bolingbroke looked so exasperated!)  The fact that she smacked Aumerle like he was some naughty child just completed her character.  I don't know why the assistant director said that Michael Kahn wanted to play that scene straight; it was just begging for humor and at least the audience got that.   

There some distractions or things that I didn't care for in this production.  First, the new opening scene with Gloucester admonishing King Richard confused me for a minute since it is not from Richard II, but another play.  On one hand, I liked having the chance to get to know Gloucester before his assassination because it helped me feel more attached to what was going on, but I'm sure there could have been another way to explain or show the death of Gloucester without having the opening scolding and then the awkward play-within-a-play of the following scene.  Also, with the new opening, there end up being three admonitions of King Richard by old men throughout the play:  Gloucester, Gaunt, and York.  I was losing interest in hearing old men complain about how Richard was running England into the ground during Gaunt's speech and when York came on stage, I was heartily sick of it.  Two old men speeches would have been more than enough.  So, overall, while I understand the director's desire to give more insight and emotional attachment to Gloucester's death, I feel there could have been a less long-winded and awkward way to do it.

Second, the death of Gaunt was not particularly well done.  The wheelchair seemed anachronistic and Gaunt was far too energetic for a man on his deathbed.  His patriotic speech about England came off very flat and his scolding of Richard, being the second one in the play, simply rehashed feelings that had already been clearly established by Gloucester.  The random tapestry hanging down from the ceiling was also distracting because someone bumped it so it kept swinging back and forth.  The only things I did like about that scene were Gaunt grabbing and shaking Richard (a turnaround since usually Richard is the one initiating touches), Richard pushing the wheelchair after Gaunt as he is carried off stage, and Richard announcing the seizure of Gaunt's possessions about two seconds after Gaunt dies.

Third, Queen Isabel, played by Rachel Holmes, was not very impressive.  She did not have many lines or scenes, which I was grateful for.  The garden scene was amusing with the gardeners, but overall it lacked force and depth.  (I did notice that the head gardener hesitated before bowing to her, perhaps showing how even in the palace Richard's power as king is fading.)  Holmes's lines lacked realistic delivery, although this was probably due to lack of experience.  She did manage to redeem her character during her emotional parting from Richard as he is being removed to Pomfret Castle.  There was definitely a lot of chemistry and emotion in that scene.  I could feel their deep love for one another and Richard's despair that the last person who cares for him and believes in him is being torn away.  

Last, the Welshman on the ramparts had an accent that sounded more French than Welsh, so I kept waiting for him to say, "Your mother was a hamster and your father smells of elderberry!"  This distracted me from the dialogue.  Also, Harry Percy had an accent that made some of his lines difficult to follow.  He also seemed too short and young to be the future fiery Hotspur, so I thought the actor choice, even as a bit part, was rather poor.   

On a few side notes, the execution of Bushy and Green with guns was a real shock.  I was expecting a beheading or a hanging, not a firing squad, and the shock really got my attention.  The pistols were anachronistic, but loud and effective.  I remember staring for a few minutes and thinking over and over, "He shot them.  He really shot them."  The gage scene was hilarious and really got across the idea of how silly honor can make men act.  (It was even more fun since we'd already acted it out in class.  Shakespeare's humor is so much easier to see rather than when you read it.)  Having Bolingbroke blow out the light like a candle before the intermission was a nice touch.  I didn't understand why the Duke of York's hand kept shaking until he said it was palsy.  Also, the armor was very realistic looking, so much so that I could only tell it wasn't real by the ease of the actors' movements and the sound it made when something hit it.  I want one!  I'm rather glad that they didn't do too much sword play on stage though because the few movements they did make didn't feel natural.  (This was much more apparent in Henry V.)

I deeply enjoyed going to see Richard II performed live at the Shakespeare Theatre.  I'm not a Shakespeare scholar or a savvy theater-attendee, but I thought it was a brilliant production with only minor flaws that did not detract from the overall performance.   I didn't care much for the play when I first read it, but after seeing it performed, there is so much more emotional context for me to hang the words on.  Now Richard II has become one of my favorites.
In April 2010, I saw, for the first time, a Shakespeare play performed live. It was part of a class trip to Washington, D.C. to see the Shakespeare Company perform. My professor, Dr. Russo, was the one who organized this wonderful experience and I am forever grateful to her.

The review might not make much sense if you haven't read the play or at least aren't familiar with the story. The bare bones is, Richard II is an ineffectual king and his various advisers start plotting to depose him and place the far more kingly Bolingbroke in his place.

You can read the original notes here
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