Bravo to Bard for tackling this brilliant mess of a play and to director Christopher Weddell and his fine cast for bringing it alive with such theatrical élan. Kudos too for Pam Johnson’s attractive set and Alan Brodie’s effective lighting.
Richard II is the first play in Shakespeare’s second historical tetralogy. It shares with the earlier plays—the three parts of Henry VI and Richard III--some awkward writing, complex plots and huge whacks of exposition involving conspiracies, wars, and many, many characters, all of which tend to blur. It also looks ahead to the wonderful Henry IV plays plus Henry V and Hamlet. Richard himself is partly a dry run at the Danish Prince, who shares some of his tendencies towards rhetoric, interiority, and self-dramatization.
Because so much of Richard II is rhymed verse, Weddell and his actors have mostly decided to go with the rhetorical flow rather than trying to wrench the language into something resembling naturalism. Although at times this results in gratuitous shouting, at its best—manipulated by John Murphy’s powerful, ruthless Bolingbroke (the show’s real star turn) or presented alone in a spotlit death cell by Haig Sutherland’s dethroned weakling of a Richard—it plays like opera.
The action moves from the death of the Duke of Gloucester and Richard’s coronation to the murder of Richard and Bolingbroke’s coronation as Henry IV. Much of the play’s fascination derives from its foreshadowing of the more familiar Henry IV plays—Bolingbroke’s Machiavellian politics, the civil wars portended by the conflicts he engenders here, the dawning divisions between him and his temporary allies like vicious Northumberland (a scary, head-shaved Scott Bellis) and his son Hotspur (Kayvon Khoshkam). We even hear about Prince Hal’s degenerate behaviour in the taverns of London, though we don’t meet him.
Richard himself is pretty much an idiot, doing everything wrong ethically, politically, and strategically, then being a wimp when things fall apart. It’s hard to care much about him, though Shakespeare does give him the opportunity for some fine self-dramatization (“For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground/And tell sad stories of the deaths of kings…”) along with his great prison soliloquy with its devastating line, “I wasted time and now doth time waste me.” Sutherland does fine with Richard’s weaknesses but could show a little more real fire.
Craig Erickson is excellent as Bolingbroke’s antagonist Mowbray but is awkwardly double-cast as Richard’s ally Bushy shortly after Richard banishes Mowbray. Duncan Fraser plays old John of Gaunt with veteran savvy and revels in his great “scepter’d isle” speech (“this precious jewel set in a silver sea … this ENGLAND”). Allan Morgan has mostly dumb-show acting to do as the Bishop but makes the most of his passionate speech in defense of Richard’s throne.
Celine Stubel’s Queen Isabel has more moxie than her Richard but has little to do dramatically. The one strong woman’s role—and the play’s only (dark) comic relief—is played with scene-stealing timing and wit by Lois Anderson as the Duchess of York, intervening with Bolingbroke to save the life of her traitorous son (Gaelan Beatty).
It may be a while before we get a chance to see this play again. Take advantage of this opportunity.