Richard II begins a History Cycle at Shakespeare and Company, through July 21

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Richard II at Shakespeare & Company. Photo Kevin Sprague.
Richard II at Shakespeare & Company. Photo Kevin Sprague.

Richard II
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Timothy Douglas
Featuring Rocco Sisto with Jake Berger, Thomas Brazzle, Wolfe Coleman, Jonathan Croy, Johnny Lee Davenport, Tyrone Mitchell Henderson, Elizabeth Ingram, Rachel Leslie, Jim Nutter, Tom O’Keefe, Thomas L. Rindge, Walton Wilson, and Kristin Wold

This production will only run for ten days—which seems too bad, in view of the importance of the play and the potential in this production—so I can only urge you to waste no time in buying your ticket. This great early play of Shakespeare’s isn’t performed quite as often in this country as in the UK. In fact this is its first appearance on Shakespeare and Co.’s main stage. Timothy Douglas’ production and Rocco Sisto’s performance of the principal role are fascinating, as I experienced them on opening night, whatever problems and rough spots were apparent, and I believe that a viewer new the to play will want to stick with it after seeing them. The audience, in fact, seemed delighted with the show, and showered the players with the warmest applause. Since Shakespeare and Company performances evolve a great deal by design over the course of a run, I hope I get a chance to see in again before it closes.

There is a great deal about this production that is commendable, and all of that is where it counts—in its fundamental aims, its concept, and its paired-down style. Its shortcomings lay mostly in the execution. Commendable above all is Artistic Director Tony Simotes’ plan to present a full cycle of Shakespeare’s history plays over the next years. Timothy Douglas commendably wanted to avoid the clichés that have attached themselves to the play over generations. The play, an experimental crossing of history and tragedy, was first performed in 1595, early in Shakespeare’s career, the same year as Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet, which also show same experimentation with mixing genres, as well as a wealth of exquisite poetic language. (Richard II, in fact, is the only play Shakespeare wrote entirely in verse.) This has made it a prime vehicle for finely trained actors—mostly British—who are fit and disposed to luxuriate in Richard’s euphuistic flights. Traditionally, Shakespeare’s unusually sympathetic treatment of Richard is presented as a luxury-loving monarch, self-indulgent in every way, whose wasteful habits and indecisiveness made him a poor king, and above all no match for the coarse, practical Bolingbroke. This aspect of Richard’s character is written into the text, notably when he confesses the reason for England’s inability to afford the Irish war.

When I think of the historical Richard II, the first image that comes to mind is the Wilton Diptych in the National Gallery, London. The interior of this extremely refined Gothic goldground altarpiece shows Richard kneeling on its left wing, with his patron saint, John the Baptist beside him, recommending him to the Blessed Virgin, who, with the Christ Child in her lap, is surrounded by eleven angels. Behind Richard stand two sainted English kings, Edmund and Edward the Confessor. The predominant colors (and materials) are the three most precious known in painting, gold, vermilion, and lapis lazuli. The robes of the Virgin and her attendant angels are all lapis. The Christ Child’s cloth is gilt. Richard’s robes, decorated with his emblem, the white hart, are gold and vermilion. St. Edmund’s robe is lapis with gilt ornament. The appearance of the king matches the portrait in Westminster Abbey and in general his traditional iconography. He is blond, delicate, even possibly effeminate, and youthful. Born in 1367, Richard was thirty-three, the age of Christ at His Crucifixion, when he was deposed in 1399, and thirty-four when he died. The Wilton Diptych, made either in England or in France, is as luxurious an object as any of its kind from the High Middle Ages. The luxuriousness of this intimate, personal work, commissioned by the king himself, is quite in harmony with Shakespeare’s portrayal of him.

I wouldn’t say that I’ve ever thought that the traditional interpretation of Richard and visualization of his Late Medieval, courtly world was ever run into the ground to the point of becoming a cliché, but I suppose one can grow tired of it. Timothy Douglas and his designers have transported the physical reality of Richard’s England to an especially dismal contemporary world, that of the Evangelical ministry. The men wear dark blue and grey polyester suits and heavy black shoes, enlivened only by cruciform tie pins and the like. Some of the nobles wear copes, whether in history they held ecclesiastical office or not. Instead of rapiers and gauntlets the players sport Bibles, which they raise in the air and wave about to make points and intimidate one another, or cast down as gages in a formal challenge. I found this conceit intriguing and amusing (perhaps more than this largely tragic play will admit), if a bit relentless in its sobriety. These men of God are known to have their penchant for bling, big cars, and the like, after all. The royal throne of plain oak with a Gothic back, an article of furniture one might find in the most severely Protestant ecclesiastical supply house. There is no hint of Richard’s notorious luxury. If this Richard emptied his coffers, it must have been on leatherette-bound de luxe editions of some awful contemporary translation of the Good Book. On the other hand, the benefit of this emphasis on Christian belief, effectively impresses on contemporary audiences, who might not have read Tillyard in college, the divine nature of kingship. The Wilton Diptych, after all, shows Richard handing over England in the form of a banner, to the Blessed Virgin as her dowry, the dos Mariae, as the land was known. He holds his hands open, ready to receive it back from her as her custodian. This politico-theological doctrine, actively promoted by Richard and taken over by Henry, as part of his propaganda efforts to legitimized his reign, was long suppressed and forgotten by the 1590s. Reading the Bible was not encouraged among lay people in the later 14th century. The dos Mariae belongs to an age long before the time when Bible-totin’ men began to run things. The 1590s had their Puritans, who found a place in the New World where they could enjoy power, a place where today many political leaders quote chapter and verse and wield Bibles much as Richard and his noblemen do on stage. Hence Timothy Douglas’ England becomes a cautionary tale, a 1984-like vision of the United States in 2013. Simultaneously, though, the treatment kept the audience focused on the political issues at stake between Richard and his nobles, as well as on the particular nature of his kingship.

Tyrone Mitchell Henderson, who later played Mowbray, Carlisle, and a Captain, with assurance and elegance, got this conceit off to a bright and witty start, delivering a prologue in the person of an actual minister. He duly gave us parish announcements and scripture to meditate: “The purest treasure mortal times afford is spotless reputation.”—a line he delivers in a much different tone as Mowbray only a few minutes later. This has an immediate meaning for Mowbray of course in his confrontation with Bolingbroke before Richard, but as we hear it in this prologue, as an unlikely message from a preacher, we are invited to ponder that Richard’s bad decision-making and high-handed treatment of his subjects lost him his reputation and as a result his crown and his life, no matter how much he might preach about his divine right to kingship—and Shakespeare does not let us forget that he believes in it passionately.

If the Christian shtick grows heavy at times or occasionally the cause of undesirable laughter, it was because of the uneven acting rather than the constant seriousness and integrity of Mr. Douglas’ reading, which, praise the Lord, afforded us a virtually uncut performance of the play. Every actor in the production had his or her ups and downs, above all Rocco Sisto and Richard and Tom O’Keefe and Bolingbroke. The actors who doubled parts were usually more effective in one than another, for example Rachel Leslie, who was no more than adequate as the Queen, but was full of imagination and liveliness as the young Harry Percy. Kristen Wold was lifeless as Ross, a male noble she played as a woman, but quite spirited as the Duchess of York, especially as her scenes veered towards the comic. Jonathan Croy was surprisingly heavy in both his roles as John of Gaunt and the First Gardener, although he had a splendid explosive moment in his final words to Richard. I found myself brightening up whenever, Tyrone Mitchell Henderson, Elizabeth Ingram, and Johnny Lee Davenport came on stage, because they consistently brought life to the proceedings, as well as vivid, focused characterizations.

Richard II at Shakespeare & Company. Photo Kevin Sprague.
Richard II at Shakespeare & Company. Rocco Sisto as Richard. Photo Kevin Sprague.

For Tom O’Keefe it seemed to be a matter of warming up. While his dispute with Mowbray seemed to go little beyond conventional ranting, he eventually became more interesting and varied as the play progressed, especially after the intermission. I had great expectations of Rocco Sisto’s Richard, but found myself rather disappointed by his work before the intermission, although he rose to a much higher level, I thought after the intermission. I realized that he is still at a fairly early stage with the part. There was quite a bit of stumbling over lines and a certain lack of focus in how he projected particular moments in his character’s behavior. There was perhaps a fair bit of improvisation in his acting of Richard. Sisto also created a formidable challenge for himself in presenting Richard as not so much a king undone by simple weakness of character and self-indulgence, but as a mentally unstable person who doesn’t really understand what his duties are and how to carry them out. As he adjudicates the fatal dispute between Mowbray and Bolingbroke, he furrows his brow and threatens, but undermines himself with contradictions and eventually overstepping his rights. Sisto also often speaks his lines with eccentric, hesitating rhythms, perhaps as an effort to create a more forceful, occasionally scary Richard, through a more powerful delivery. His rhythms worked more effectively after the break, in his pathetic scenes of abdication. His efforts to project Richard’s unpredictable behavior were especially effective in these scenes. As it was, Rocco Sisto gave us a challenging, usually interesting Richard, and I’m sure the performance will ripen before the show closes on July 21.

So much in this production was done right, that it is admirable in many ways as it is, and I am convinced that it will only get better with time.

Richard II at Shakespeare & Company. Photo Kevin Sprague.
Richard II at Shakespeare & Company. Photo Kevin Sprague.

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