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What’s missing, in your foofier productions of Shakespeare’s Richard II, is that Richard II is a damn fool.
I mean, c’mon: Here’s a king who’s already been dethroned once, briefly, by dukes and earls who’ve got more money and more soldiers than he does, ’cause he and his fancy French wife tax the bejeezus out of the country to pay for things like, um, handkerchiefs, which nobody in England had ever seen until Richard and his latest hifalutin’ dame came to town. So what does Mr. Popularity do? He (a) assassinates a guy who helped oust him; (b) banishes a couple of the others (including the big, mean-looking one with the blue tattoo on his head) as soon as he finds some half-assed excuse; and (c) goes and steals the tattooed gentleman’s extremely valuable dukedom, just ’cause the guy’s father has died and the castle’s unattended.
And then he leaves the frickin’ country to go pick a fight with some pissant rebels in Ireland. Um, hello? It’s Ireland! For future reference: Ireland = not critical when you’ve got half the English nobility lookin’ to kick your can out of office.
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To his credit, Robert McNamara makes all this rather clearer in the Washington Shakespeare Company’s new production than it often is. Shakespeare lards up his take on the historical Richard with courtly language and plenty of procedural fanciness (I swear, if I see one more glove flung down dramatically by a nobleman in a huff…) among which the bloody-nosed, bare-knuckled politics can get lost. Hell, I’d be happy if Richard would just call everybody by the same damn names consistently. But no: Shakespeare, as always playing to the gentry and the groundlings by turns, identifies characters by title one minute and by surname the next. Of course, everybody is everybody else’s cousin anyway, so just trying to sort out the various relationships, whether those of blood or those of expediency, can leave an audience too tired and puzzled to care whether Richard fights to the finish or surrenders to Bolingbroke.
Bolingbroke? Yup: The future Henry IV is the heavy in this story, which you’ll know immediately in this production because he’s the baldy with the leather pants and the cobalt-blue tattoo. McNamara, looking to streamline the story and set audiences talking, reimagines Richard’s 14th-century court as the sort of fast, loud, fashion-forward dystopia in which the queen frolics about the castle in a fur stole and a scrap of underwear while factionalist courtiers carefully apply their most threatening eyeliner before squaring off for a punked-out Sharks and Jets ballet.
If it sounds a little flashy—no, strike that, it is a little flashy, but there does at least seem to be a unifying idea behind the gaudy bits: The England ruled by this Richard exists squarely within the bounds of snarly-nihilist territory, as indicated by a program note that nods in the direction of literary malcontents from the famously disaffected Samuel Beckett to the reliably snappish Steven Berkoff to Anthony Burgess, author of that hypnotic bit of porno-violence A Clockwork Orange. McNamara wants to ask whether unseating a country’s leader is ever justified—even if that leader acts as if he’s got a mandate when he’s really the least popular guy at the geopolitical prom—or whether power grabs always end up with the grabber morphing into the sort of tyrant he’s breaking the rules to unseat. (It was Richard’s deposition, remember, that eventually led to the Wars of the Roses, chronicled in Shakespeare’s monumental Henry plays.) With that topic on the agenda, all those outré outfits communicate, more efficiently than Elizabethan frills and brocades ever could, that norms social, political, and moral have been chucked blithely in the blender.
Not that it all makes immediate sense: The silent ensemble slinks portentously onstage, white-faced and kohl-eyed and looking like the love children of Vera Wang and Thierry Mugler, while Gloucester’s wife delivers the first big speech. Things improve rapidly, though, after the Entry of the Significant Mimes, and the action moves to the throne room, where Christopher Henley’s capricious Richard banishes Brian Hemmingsen’s hulking Bolingbroke. That lord’s clash with Mowbray, often staged as a stiff, almost chivalric exchange of formalized insults, plays here like the trash-talking pre-show at a professional-wrestling match. By a few scenes later, when the ailing John of Gaunt summons up the nerve to call the king out on his excesses (McNamara has the dignified Kim Curtis deliver the famous “sceptered isle” speech wheezingly, from a wheelchair), the play has taken on the noisily skittish air that envelops any capital where everybody’s waiting for an uprising.
From there, Henley and his second wife, Queen Isabel (an ill-at-ease Kathleen Akerley, voicing her speeches in a nervous undertone), negotiate the transition from life of the party to forcibly parted with something that approaches real pathos. And a genuine ache begins to gather in the play’s great awakening stretch, as Henley’s Richard grapples first with the petulant bitterness of loss and then with the dawning awareness of just how much potential he’s wasted: Only after he’s imprisoned at dank Pomfret castle does wastrel Richard truly grieve the king he might have been, and Shakespeare (cruelly? mercifully?) cuts that awareness short with the regicide that’s been inevitable since the opening scenes.
The stylish uproar of the production—Marianne Meadows did the alternately harsh and haunting lighting, A.J. Guban the many-windowed, gunmetal-gray set, and Jennifer Tardiff the Felliniesque riot that is the costumes—helps make it feel surprisingly swift, though it still clocks in at something like two-and-a-half hours. And if not everything quite works—Adrienne Nelson’s Duchess of York seems mighty young to generate much empathy as the worried mother of the dangerously indiscreet young Lord Aumerle, and Henley allows Richard’s wonderful moment with the shattered mirror to pass without much of the shiver it ought to impart—there are nonetheless plenty of delicious moments: Richard surrenders the crown with an acid flippancy that amounts to a slap, and the scorn and shame of it so enrage Hemmingsen’s Bolingbroke that he struggles to keep his countenance; later, when the upstart Aumerle mocks Bolingbroke’s ruthless maneuverings, Denman C. Anderson captures Hemmingsen’s distinctive cadence with a wicked accuracy that had the opening-night audience in guffaws.
That wit and that craft, not to mention the abundance of style McNamara and his production team bring to the proceedings, keep this Richard clicking along despite the subtleties that get lost in the noise. Foofier productions are better, usually, at those subtleties—but this one’s unmistakably alive, and there’s something to be said for that.CP