(Note: If you already know enough about Shakespeare’s history plays, feel free to skip the next dozen paragraphs of context.)
There have been conflicts longer and bloodier and even more complicated that the English civil wars of the 15th Century, but none have been chronicled by William Shakespeare. Only Blind Homer’s Trojan Wars from the dawn of recorded history have similar resonance.
King Richard II is the first of eight plays Shakespeare used to cover the Wars of the Roses, the three gory decades when the Houses of York (white rose) and Lancaster (red rose) ripped endlessly at each other’s royal lineage, finally dooming their shared Plantagenet heritage and yielding to the Renaissance world of the Tudor dynasty.
Of the eight kings during the wars, Richard III (“My kingdom for a horse!”) died in battle and at least three others – Henry VI, Edward V and Richard II — were murdered in prison cells. (For a hair-raising summary by Shakespeare himself, see Act IV, scene 4 of Richard II, where two aged queen-mothers compare their lists: “Thy Edward is dead that killed my Edward…”)
Plot after plot ripped apart each new alignment but there was only one forced abdication, the only one in English history: the enigmatic Richard II.
When we meet him, the historic Richard had been king for over two decades, since he was 10. As the Lord’s Anointed, he was taught to assume that his every wish would be carried out. That hadn’t been exactly true, as rival guardians from the large Plantagenet family maneuvered endlessly for advantage, but he had generally persevered. And the status quo might have held indefinitely but for a couple of misjudgments.
One of the king’s four uncles, the Duke of Gloucester, was murdered and it was generally understood that the king had been involved. His follower Thomas Mowbray, the Duke of Norfolk, is prepared to take the fall for the king but is challenged by another royal cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, to a duel of honor after Bolingbroke himself is accused in Gloucester’s murder.
Following the first few sword strokes, the king stops the duel and passes sentence: Bolingbroke to be banished for 10 years, Mowbray for life. And so, he seems to say, let’s get back to the party.
This result pleased nobody and, in the play, leads to Bolingbroke’s eventual return with an army to claim the throne as Henry IV after Richard’s forced retirement.
I labor over this backstory because Shakespeare didn’t. He didn’t have to, since his audiences knew it already from a century-plus of balladry and folktales.Queen Elizabeth not only knew it but identified with a childless ruler surrounded by ambitious intrigue. That’s why the first publication, and probably the first performances, of Richard II left out the scene in which the king agrees to be deposed.
Shakespeare’s main gripe with Richard is his irresponsible leadership and misuse of national assets. His casual robbing from the rich to feed the richer – himself and his entourage of fawning pals – is what set up Bolingbroke’s success and the dizzy shifting of sides that left Richard chained in prison, friendless and alone.
When he wrote RII, Shakespeare was exploding with poetical genius. He was more interested in this failed monarch’s sad fate than his political bumbling. So he makes the character a splendid lyric poet, who gathers momentum from each new crisis until his climax in the deposition scene and the melancholy coda in the dark of the cell. In the plays that follow, Richard’s faults are forgotten, even by enemies, and he is remembered more as sweet victim than unjust tyrant.
That’s how Robert Sean Leonard plays him in the Old Globe Theatre production now outdoors at the Lowell Davies Festival Theatre. When Leonard gestures, others freeze. He cocks his head the better to hear his music. He assumes that everybody wants to hear what he says and do what he wants. He’s genuinely baffled at the way everything is falling apart and he uses each new outrage as a springboard to even higher flights of ironic imagery.
Leonard so tightly focusses this production that the rest of it is soon slipping into mere dim recall. Andrea Lauer’s late medieval costumes are always right. Un-credited music (perhaps sound designer Sten Severson’s work?) is efficient punctuation. And John Lee Beatty’s massive backdrop, punctured by three rows of opening doors like some over-formal Advent calendar, is a graceful frame for every occasion.
But Erica Schmidt’s staging seems a succession of clever turns rather than a purposeful march to a story’s conclusion. The king loses his temper and pummels a dying old man with the bouquet of flowers he’s brought. Two knights face off with formal rhetoric of chivalry sung in ecclesiastical chant. Angry young aristocrats hurl challenging gloves at each other’s feet as Bolingbroke seems suddenly to wonder if this king business really is worth the efforts. Garbage thrown down on the deposed king from London windows becomes graceful fluttering leaves and petals. All of this can work intermittently but it’s not part of a whole.
And Schmidt adapts a most annoying text tweak. Another of Richard’s cousins, the Duke of York’s only son, called Aumerle,
remains faithful longer than most and later is caught by his father plotting to assassinate Bolingbroke. He is pardoned only after the eloquent pleas of his mother but here is made to seem abundantly grateful because it is he who turns up in Richard’s cell as the masked murderer, later dragging the royal corpse in for the new King Henry IV’s approval.
Well, no. Shakespeare had the murderer as one Sir Pierce of Exton, who even gets a little scene of his own (V, iv) as motivation, claiming the new king looked right at him as he asked, “Have I no friend will rid me of this living fear?” That’s the killer: Exton.
Shakespeare himself often ignored history to make the story work better. Why mess with his messing, especially for something so fruitless? The historic Aumerle became Duke of York and died a hero, fighting alongside Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt.
Maybe Schmidt felt she was running out of actors. This is a cast unusually stocked with apprentices. Too often, a solemn row of elders looks like the junior varsity.
The exceptions are the correct ones. Since everybody in RII is a poet and/or philosopher, the play needs some experts for soaring scenes like the dying John of Gaunt lamenting poor England (“…this scepter’d isle…”) or the Duchess of York pleading for her only son’s life or Mowbray lamenting his banishment.
Charles Janasz, a local favorite, delivers Gaunt with ringing conviction and later adds some honest moments as a palace gardener. Lizbeth Mackay is passion spilled recklessly as the Duchess of York and Ian Lassiter, though he doesn’t find a way to indicate the depths of his sacrifice as Richard’s suggested surrogate (kind of a “I hope you can drop this investigation” assignment) certainly makes vivid the crash of his lamentation.
Patrick Kerr separates his Duke of York from every crowd just by being wishy-washy. Tory Kittles is haunted and troubled as Bolingbroke, aptly setting up his final salute to his victim and his intent, forever doomed, to visit the Holy Land and “…wash the blood from my guilty hand.” A stalwart characterization.
Every generation is moved to find its own true and deep meaning in Shakespeare. I was told once by a Polish director that the English didn’t deserve Shakespeare; one had to be Polish to thoroughly understand him. And our troubled time is no exception. There are contemporary parallels galore in Richard II and sometimes they bring explosions of insight, like timed-release medication.
It is to the director’s credit that she didn’t lean on any of these levers but, instead, just made sure they had room to work.
(Continues at the Old Globe’s Lowell Davies Theatre nightly at 8 except Mondays and July 4 through July 15, 2017.)