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Richard II

Enter Woodstock; Exit Poetical Power

Shakespeare Theater Company, Sydney Harman Hall, Washington, D.C.
Wednesday, April 7, 20010, Seats D–120&121 (side of stage)
Directed by Michael Kahn

This production was running in tandem with Henry V under the banner “The Leadership Repertory” with Michael Hayden playing both kings. While he displayed true leadership qualities in his reading of Henry, we have to ask of his Richard, “What leadership?”

Actually, at play’s end we were asking, “What the heck were those first scenes?” They certainly weren’t from Shakespeare’s play, as they featured Woodstock railing at Richard; Richard’s cronies, Bushy, Bagot, and Green, taking over the council seats from Richard’s three uncles; and Mowbray plotting with Richard to murder Woodstock. Then we actually see Woodstock’s murder, followed by Woodstock’s widow at the graveside railing at Gaunt about the state of the kingdom (a speech from Shakespeare’s Act I, Scene II) before moving into the Bolingbroke-Mowbray challenge scenes that actually start Shakespeare’s play. These additional scenes come from an anonymous play called Woodstock that, evidence indicates, Shakespeare used as a source. It was an interesting interpolation in a historical sense (for anyone in the audience who knew the source play, which at the time I did not), and it offered exposition for audiences unfamiliar with Richard II itself who might miss out the undercurrents of the opening challenge scene. But it extended the play to an overlong three hours and 20 minutes, and as any play that both predates Shakespeare and carries the authorial credit of “anonymous” is bound to be of notably lesser quality, the added scenes detracted from Shakespeare’s poetic vision.

For both the play and its poetry are incredibly powerful. Though I found this production irritating in a lot of ways, I realized while watching it just how great the play itself truly is (prompted in part by my irritation at noting how far short this production fell). A running theme is the art of language in the role of governance, and in the play’s very structure itself, Shakespeare makes language high art and, correspondingly, a powerful weapon.

Which brings us to this Richard’s version of leadership: petulance at the start, petulance at the end. That’s fine at the start, for Shakespeare portrays him as a brat with no innate sense of command. But when Richard returns from Ireland, he embarks on a series of speeches that track the simultaneous fall of his state and the growth of his worldview. Rather than plumbing the depth of human condition and futilely searching for threads of hope, Hayden’s Richard whined. He continued the crybaby tactic in the deposition scene rather than ingeniously derailing the usurpers’ PR pageant. When we get to Pomfret, we feel little sympathy for this Richard and care little for his meditations, especially as Hayden used an annoying stutter that undermined Shakespeare’s powerfully poetic verses. Hayden did requite himself with a truthfully touching parting with his queen, Rachael Holmes’ Isabel, and in his struggle with the murderers. (Point-counterpoint: my wife, Sarah, liked Hayden’s portrayal of Richard; she felt his petulance throughout the play was in keeping with the historical monarch.)

Whereas Hayden’s Richard stuttered through the verse, Charles Borland’s Bolingbroke, ironically, seemed much more poetic. The plain-spoken usurper of the play came across as a smooth-speaking politician on the stage. Northumberland, too, as played by Derrick Lee Weeden, was utmost a politician rather than a rebel warrior. Another memorable performance was turned in by Tom Story as Aumerle, an astute observer who recognized the foibles of his king but stalwartly defended the system of government that he knew would descend to chaos if it were abused. His best moment, though, was the gauntlet scene before the deposition, which came off as grand comedy rather than stodgy chivalry. Kudos, too, for the Yorks-on-their-knees moment, with Ted van Griethuysen and Naomi Jacobson joining Borland and Story in a scene that is ridiculous on paper but proved genuinely funny and moving in this production.

We were seated to the side of the thrust stage, as we had been with Henry V. At least under Michael Kahn's direction, the company played to the surrounding audience better than it did in Henry V, but the acoustics and bleacher style rows still make those bad seats.

Eric Minton
April 9, 2010

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