Power and ruling is a shifty thing – everyone thinks they know better than the current person in charge about what the people want, and knows they can be a better ruler than the current one. The currency of power is always changing hands, but it’s the how and why the power transfers that is always the interesting part of the story. RICHARD II at The Old Globe explores these themes in an engaging and entertaining production featuring Robert Sean Leonard as the titular King.
RICHARD II is the first of Shakespeare’s 8 plays that explore the complicated, often bloody, and dramatic War of the Roses where the Houses of York and Lancaster ripped their families apart in an effort to gain the throne. Written during the end of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the idea of succession for a childless monarch was at the top of everyone’s minds. This play is also unique in that it explores both the tragedy of King Richard but also the rise of his replacement, and the two different ideologies that they each represent in how to rule. Alas, like many other Shakespearean plays and themes, this theme still resonates as incredibly contemporary.
Luckily, this is a part of history that is not incredibly complicated and everyone knows all of the details, right? Turns out, the only part of the War of the Roses most people seem to know is that somehow it leads to Henry VIII and his plethora of wives. So here is a quick rundown of the history.
Richard was crowned King at the tender age of ten, and over two decades grew to be a ruler that is detached from his people. He surrounded himself with political cronies that supported his belief that he was king because he was chosen by God, and his people and the country were his to do with as he pleased. A fact that is not lost when he first enters the play in a flowing white robe, golden wig, and a crown with built in halo. This is aman who is one step away from declaring himself a deity.
As the show starts we learn that one of the king’s four uncles, the Duke of Gloucester, was murdered. It seems to be the general belief that the king was involved. Thomas Mowbray, the Duke of Norfolk, is ready to take the blame for the deed when royal cousin Henry of Bolingbroke is accused of his uncle’s murder and so Bolingbroke challenges Mowbray to a duel. (So many royal cousins and uncles in this play, thank goodness there is a handy family tree in the program for you to review before and after the play!)
As the duel starts, Richard lets a few jabs get through before ending the fuel and passing what seems to be an incredibly arbitrary sentence: Bolingbroke is banished for 10 years, Mowbray is banished for life. Now with that pesky “ruling” out of the way he can go back to some fun with his friends.
In the end, this detachment, lack of responsibility, misuse of the country’s monies and resources, and his impulsiveness is what leads to Richard’s downfall. Henry of Bolingbroke comes back with an army, as those who wanted to depose a ruler were wont to do. Bolingbroke is of the opinion that while bloodline is important, it is someone who has the intellect and political savvy that is better suited to ruling the people; and he is the man for the job. As these conflicting visions for the future clash, so begins the downfall of Richard and the rise of Henry.
Yet, this play is not all dramatic pauses and heavy, dry monologues and plotting. There are moments of real humor as Richard loses his temper and tries to beat up a dying man (another uncle, seriously so many uncles) with some flowers, his followers are all foppish gossips, and gloves fly free in multiple scenes as honors are impugned.
Robert Sean Leonard settles in for a slow reveal as Richard goes from a king with no worries who underestimates the threat against him, and has the delusional belief that his English soil will repel his enemies. As the layers of his royal veneer are removed, and he realizes that those he thought of as friends are not necessarily so, his haughtiness starts to dissolve and his vulnerability is revealed.
It is the second act where he really gets to explore his care for the occupation of king that ironically he seems to discover once is no longer king. As the only unseated royal in this coming battle royale for generations to come (the rest are killed in various ways), he does give over his crown, but not without gaining his sense of self and a fair bit of wry humor directed at what Bolingbroke can expect.
As Bolingbroke, Tory Kittles displays the strength and charisma of someone who can successfully take the throne, and the exasperation with trying to rule the rowdy subjects who seem to think they don’t need to listen to him. The look on his face as he realizes that ruling is less grand gestures and more mediating absurdities is evident in the second scene of the evening in which gloves fly through the air in abundance.
They are supported by a strong cast including Charles Janasz as Bolingbroke’s father, John of Gaunt, Nora Carroll as Queen Isabel, and Patrick Kerr as the Duke of York who is tired of seeing his family divided over this standoff.
The costumes by Andrea Lauer are lovely, and cleverly show Richard’s more medieval roots versus Bolingbroke’s more modern and less gaudy attire. All scenes take place on a stage dominated by gorgeous wall with 21 doors that allow for varied and interesting locales for actors to appear. It is simultaneously severe and magnificent with its imposing height and many angles.
In one textual change, Richard meets his untimely end by the hands of the Duke Aumerle (his cousin), instead of Exton. But it helps highlight the viciousness and futility of family against family that this all kick off, and the idea that even when you are no longer in power, there is power and danger in being present.
As Richard laments “I wasted time, and now time doth waste me”, but rest assured this play is worthy of your time.
RICHARD II is playing in The Old Globe’s Lowell Davies Festival Theatre (outdoors so bring a jacket) through July 15th. For tickets and show times go to www.theoldglobe.org