There's no real hero in Richard II. In fact, everyone in the play is pretty wicked. Watching the Colorado Shakespeare Festival production, I remembered a historian's comment after a corpse assumed to be Richard III was found under a parking lot in Leicester. Richard's indefatigable defenders had hoped this corpse would show that Richard wasn't as evil as Shakespeare had made him out to be and hadn't murdered the princes in the Tower (heavy lifting for a corpse, but never mind) — but this historian pointed out that it made little difference whether Richard or his successor, Henry Tudor, had killed the princes: Murdering anyone who stood between you and the throne was standard practice at the time. What a long way we've come, I thought, shuddering. And then I remembered Bill Clinton flying back to Arkansas during his first presidential campaign to make sure a brain-damaged inmate was put to death so that the candidate wouldn't be seen as soft on crime. And the regular Tuesday death conferences held by President Barack Obama, during which he decides who, among an array of suspected terrorists, will die — along with anyone unlucky enough to be with them at the time. This is supposedly to deter attacks, but a clear secondary goal is the maintenance of military dominance. Morality and tremendous power don't sit easily together — and this was, in part, the lens through which I saw this Richard II.
Just about every character spends his time jockeying for power. The king himself is weak and corrupt. When the action opens, he is adjudicating a dispute between two nobles, Bolingbroke and Mowbray, over money and the open question of who is responsible for the murder of the Duke of Gloucester. Gloves are thrown down and swords drawn when Richard interrupts the threatened duel to banish both men — Mowbray for life, Bolingbroke for six years. Bolingbroke's father, John of Gaunt, dies soon after this, having first uttered the gorgeous, patriotic speech almost all British schoolchildren are required to memorize: "This royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle...." Richard seizes Gaunt's lands — which are Bolingbroke's by law — and an angry Bolingbroke returns to England, musters an army and deposes Richard.
At first grandiose and oblivious, Richard is beaten down by events, forced to surrender his crown and scepter, and, finally, alone in prison, brought face to face with his mortality. By the end, he's changed, if not transformed. He remains self-pitying. He doesn't come to any understanding as deep and heart-wrenching as King Lear's realization on the heath: "Poor naked wretches, whereso'er you are/That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm/How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides/Your loop'd and window'd raggedness, defend you/From seasons such as these?" What does change is Richard's language: He gives a series of astonishingly beautiful speeches on his fate. This being an early play, they are more smoothly lyrical than the ragged, passionate outcries of later tragedies, but they melt the heart. A Shakespeare professor I once knew called this "redemption through poetry."
Presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival through August 16. University Theatre, University of Colorado at Boulder, 303-492-0554, coloradoshakes.org.
During past viewings of Richard II, I've focused primarily on the character of Richard, and Chip Persons carries the role well here — peevish at the beginning, showing glimpses of true tragic heroism by the end. The reason I found myself thinking intensely about the dynamics of power this time? James Symons has directed such a lucid, balanced and intelligent production. The set is spare and elegant, the lighting and music inconspicuously expressive. Steven Cole Hughes is a strong Bolingbroke, sometimes seeming calmly reasonable, at other moments truly frightening. Lawrence Hecht could hardly have delivered "This royal throne of kings" better (though he appears somewhat robust for a man about to die), and there are fine performances all around, particularly from Anne Sandoe as the Duchess of Gloucester and a menacing Sam Gregory as the Earl of Northumberland.
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I once saw the role of Queen Isabel played by a sixty-year-old man: the legendary Jasper Deeter of Hedgerow Theatre, who read the entire play as a fundraiser. His Isabel was very young, almost a child, utterly confused by life at court. Her response when told not to despair — "Who shall hinder me?" — was willful, petulant and deeply touching. Jamie Anne Romero's version is delicate, loving and equally touching. Richard II allows for so many shifting interpretations because — as Walt Whitman once said of himself — it is large. It contains multitudes.