There seems to be renewed interest in RICHARD II since the BBC’s excellent 2012 production as part of its Hollow Crown series. The TV film starred Ben Whishaw as the tragic title character, a poet king whose impotent lyricism and self-involved misjudgments bring about his own downfall. James Patrick Davis takes on the role in Quintessence Theatre Company’s competent current production.
After exiling his cousin, Henry Bolingbrook (Lee Cortopass), Richard steals his inheritance upon the death of Bolingbrook’s father, John of Gaunt (Stephen Novelli). The king further loses the fealty of his nobles by taxing them heavily to support wars in Ireland. Bolingbrook is able to walk through England, reclaim his titles, and take the crown himself while Richard spouts melancholy rhymes (“You may my glories and my state depose,/ But not my griefs; still am I king of those.”)
Richard shares the best speeches of the play with his uncle John. Both Davis and Cortopass delivers these beautiful lines with aplomb. Repeatedly, one is struck by the Shakespeare’s perception and skill. (“Things sweet to taste prove in digestion sour”, “More are men’s ends mark’d than their lives before”, “I wasted time, and now doth time waste me.”) RICHARD II is one of Shakespeare’s only plays written entirely in verse. Indeed, by contrasting the beauty of Richard’s language with the ineptitude of his kingship, Shakespeare seems to be commenting on the futility of his own incomparable poetry.
The play does suffer from a lack of prosaic comic relief, so perfectly achieved with Falstaff in its sequels Henry IV parts one and two. Without this, director Alexander Burns struggles to make his RICHARD II accessible. At intermission and at the end of the play, I overheard many people questioning the facts of the story they were watching. RICHARD II is a prequel, and the production’s second act contains much that seems relevant only when it is considered as part of a mini-series. Burns was admirably ruthless in his editing of the Bard’s masterpiece Hamlet last season; he would have done well to trim this production.
The play runs in repertory with AS YOU LIKE IT (reviewed here) and uses the same cast. The all-male casting perhaps benefits the sister production more; here it adds little to the piece, though Ryan Walters and Matt Tallman produce fine performances in female roles.
RICHARD II is a richly rewarding play, full of insightful and startling verse, but unless you already have this appreciation, visitors to Quintessence’s Sedgwick Theatre would do well to read a synopsis of the play and some background history before seeing the production. [Sedgwick Theatre, 7137 Germantown Avenue] October 11-November 16, 2014; quintessencetheatre.org.