Last night, I attended the preview night of the Colorado Shakespeare Festival‘s production of William Shakespeare’s Richard II. While there were definitely some opening-night jitters, this was a powerful production and well worth seeing.
Richard II is the first play of what has become known as the Henriad, four plays encompassing the beginning of the Wars of the Roses: Richard II, Henry IV Parts I and II, and Henry V. The rest of the story is told in the three parts of Henry VI and in Richard III. Spanning the period of time from roughly 1397 to 1485, these eight plays trace the arc of chaos that results when subjects have more power and popularity than their sovereigns.
In the CSF production, Richard is without a doubt the center of the piece. I was a little surprised by this, because the play is usually presented as a contrast or dichotomy between two men (as most of the Henriad plays are); in this case, between Richard and Bolingbroke. I’m not entirely sure if this was a directorial decision or a result of the varying strength of the actors, but Richard was the hub around which the entire play circled. Lead actor Chip Persons was well able to carry that burden. His physical resemblance to the king, as well as his emotional range — from arrogant and self-righteous to deeply despairing to painfully resigned — made him an excellent casting choice for this prime Shakespearean role.
My biggest complaint overall was that the pivotal John of Gaunt death scene, in which Richard scarcely mourns his uncle’s death but instead cavalierly confiscates all his wealth and property to fund his wars in Ireland, was marred by the over-emoting of the Duke of York. While I understand that York is supposed to be upset — Gaunt was his dear brother, after all, and Richard’s act is a violation of all law and tradition — the level of near-hysteria that the actor brought to the scene garbled his words which are critical to one’s understanding of what is happening. In effect, York is supposed to speak for the horrified audience: “Richard, what you are doing is wrong! It violates all that is right and just in this world!” But if the audience can’t make out the words, it simply sits in confusion. Fortunately, Persons’ calm, almost steely presentation of Richard’s will saved the moment, but the scene definitely lost some of its power.
The second half was much stronger than the first, which I would again put down to opening night roughness. Persons hit his stride as the play progressed and owned the stage as Richard begins to doubt and question everything he has ever held to be true: his own kingship, his own right to rule. The deposition scene was wonderful, with the entire court sitting there shamefaced as Richard, wrapped in shreds of fragile dignity, laid bare their crime in deposing him. The feeling of complicity in a wrong was palpable throughout the theater. The Bishop of Carlisle made the most of his small part, prophesying the havoc that this act of treason will unleash upon England (ah, the benefit of hindsight, Master Shakespeare!). And the scene of parting between Richard and his queen was lovely and tender. (Historical aside: Richard married Isabella of Valois when she was six years old purely for her dowry. In 1399, she would have been about nine years old. But Shakespeare never did let the facts get in the way of a good story.)
The creative decision to peel away the layers of rich costume from Richard along the path of his downfall visually supported the audience’s understanding of what was happening to him. I didn’t really think about it at the time, but in reflection, it is quite powerful: that as Richard’s monarchy — his majesty — is forcibly being taken from him, the trappings of that power are also being removed and he is becoming simply a man. How he comes to grips with that, and what he makes of it in his final moments, lend a beautiful simplicity to his final scene, rendering the end of the play, back in Bolingbroke’s court — now King Henry IV’s court — superfluous.