Shining a poetic spotlight on the beginning of the War of the Roses, this tragic tale perfectly mixes Shakespeare's lush language with the history of England. In the process, it reveals a sensitive but flawed king, Richard II, who is deposed by his efficient but passionless cousin, Henry IV, raising questions about the crown, order, and the role of government.
I don’t know that much about the historical Richard II, but Shakespeare’s version of the man is fascinating. As played by David Ivers, Richard has a dry wit that would pop up so suddenly that I almost missed the joke, which only made me listen more closely to him. But even though he can be a funny man, he takes his role as king seriously, believing that as God’s anointed he is meant to be king. Unfortunately, even at his best Richard’s a pretty awful king. He’s quick to make decisions when he shouldn’t, and when a rapid response is crucial he can’t make up his mind. He surrounds himself with favorites and delights in stirring up drama with his courtiers. Before the play is even half over it’s obvious that this man should not be king, so when Henry Bolingbroke (Bullingbrook in the text) challenges him it seems obvious who should rule. But the precedent that Bolingbroke sets in place with his actions sets the stage for generations of war amongst the English for the crown, which makes me wonder if it might have been better for England to just leave ol’ Richard on the throne, after all.
For the most part, the cast of Richard II did an excellent job. David Ivers made Richard both sympathetic and likeable while highlighting his ineptitude and toll of his failing kingship on the man. Larry Bull (Bolingbroke) was his opposite in so many ways: disciplined, strict, and in the final scene where the new king realizes the cost of his throne and the impact his actions will have on the future, you can see the physical manifestation of the weight on his conscience this has brought. It’s quite brilliant, and made me eager to continue with the history plays to see this character’s story continue.
There was one terrible misfire, though. Richard II’s queen (Melissa Graves) had an absolutely abominable French accent that came and went from scene to scene. Sometimes she sounded like she was channeling Pepe Le Pew, sometimes she was just another American girl. It was distracting.
Costumes were an interesting mishmash of military uniforms and garments from the late 19th and early 20th century. In one scene, Richard II dons a familiar red silk and ermine cape that was last seen on the shoulders of King John earlier in the season. The stage was fairly minimal – a series of platforms and a black railing dominate the stage, and a digital screen behind it and occasional pieces of furniture were the only other pieces of scenery.