Playgoers may be wondering why, out of all of Shakespeare’s works, Richard II has captured the imaginations of two theatre companies on both sides of the Atlantic (at the same time).  In England, the play is Michael Grandage’s final production as artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse.  Charles Spencer, in the Telegraph, notes, “Whereas Richard II is a weak, vacillating figure who has abused his powers and brought his country to a state of shame, Grandage’s rule has been both benign and packed with high achievement.”  Michael Dobson, in the Guardian also found himself puzzling, Why this play, now?: “The most deliberately old-fashioned of all Shakespeare's histories,” he writes, “[Richard II] is written in often rhymed verse, it repeatedly uses words that were already archaic in 1595, and it consists mainly of rhetorical set-pieces, without a single earthy pub scene to set them off.” Ultimately, Dobson contends, its relevance may lie in the fact that “This year, any number of elaborately uniformed heads of state have found themselves sitting on the ground and telling sad stories of the death of kings, and several of their popularity-courting replacements have been tempted to follow their predecessors' methods having inherited their power. All over the Middle East, dictators and their opponents are changing places, and people are asking: 'So what?' "

In New York, it’s difficult to watch the play without thinking of contemporary American politics.  One person I talked to thought it could be used to refer to  President Obama. In 1972, Harold Clurman found the history significant to “the turmoil in periods of political and moral uncertainty”—the following, spoken by a Welsh captain in Act II, Scene iv, may even remind you of a quatrain from Nostradamus or a good policy wonk:  “The bay trees in our country are all withered, and meteors fright the fixed stars of heaven.  The pale-faced moon looks bloody on the earth, and lean looked prophets whisper fearful change.  Rich men look sad and ruffians dance and leap, the one in fear to lose what they enjoy, the other to enjoy by rage and war. . . .”   The Pearl Theatre Company, which is producing Richard II at New York City Center Stage II, presents work with political reverberations, as need be (if you aren’t already convinced that putting on a play isn’t a political act in itself). A case in point would be Ibsen’s Rosmersholm, whose director Elinor Renfield saw a parallel between partisan sniping in Norway in the 1880s and our own ideological wars in the U.S. in 2010. In Richard II, director J. R. Sullivan works more stealthily: you’ll either see the play as a cautionary tale for the 2012 election or you won’t.  You’ll either see Richard as a stand-in for the 1% or you won’t.  You won't think that it's reflecting nothing back. 

Richard II, the lover of beautiful words: he’s decorous, solitary, a man of declamation, not action (even though we know he goes to war).  In staging the play, one of the major issues must be in pacing and rhythm—there’s no automatic tension for us in watching Richard because he doesn’t really fight back.  Lines from his play can be sustaining as he falls, though: from a leopard being unable to change his spots to telling those sad stories about royalty; from “We’ll make foul weather with despise’d tears,” to “the land is full of weeds,” to “I wasted time, and now doth time waste me” (of course, there’s much more).

The Pearl’s production is solid and straightforward. The cast includes stalwarts from its resident actors: Sean McNall and Jolly Abraham; Dan Kremer, Grant Goodman and Chris Mixon work well representing court factions. Students, especially, might find interest in this play—but I always seem to be saying that with the work from this company. Richard II ends, of course, the way it begins with a king pretending that he doesn’t have any blood on his hands (that may be one of the reasons why Joe Barton’s 1974 production at Stratford used two actors who could randomly play either Richard or Bolingbroke). Americans, on both sides of the aisle, have seen enough blood from our wars, they’ve been bludgeoned enough in this economy—we continue to hope for real change, unlike what Dobson writes about regarding Arab countries. May Shakespeare be wrong in only predicting more politics as usual.

© 2011 by Bob Shuman. All rights reserved.  

Photo: From L to R: Sean McNall (Richard II) and Jolly Abraham (the Queen); credit: Gregory Costanzo; all rights reserved.

"Richard II shines" –The L Magazine

"The production is expertly crafted and a joy to behold for the expert Shakespeare scholar and newbie alike.” –Show Business Weekly

“Shakespeare's lines shine through unencumbered.” –Backstage

“[Sean McNall has] effortless range, simply commands the stage as Richard II.” –

Richard II
By William Shakespeare
Directed by J.R. Sullivan

If you tear down a world, what do you build?
If the thing you were born to be is ripped away, what do you become?

Corruption, ambition, and greed stalk the nation—and threaten to destroy its future. In Richard II, Shakespeare chronicles the shattering fall of one king and the meteoric rise of another in a raw and powerful tale of a country—and a soul—in chaos.



Richard II runs approximately 2 hours and 50 minutes

Evening performances begin at 7:30pm and
will end at approximately 10:30pm

Matinee performances begin at 2:30pm and
will end at approxmiately 5:30pm

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