Afficianados of classic theatre are most familiar with the often produced Henry IV, Parts I and II, and Henry V, the final three plays of Shakespeare’s major historical tetralogy. Richard II, the first play of the tetralogy, depicts the beginning of the more than 85 year long internecine War of the Roses which did not conclude until the death of Richard III and the establishment of the Tudor dynasty.
We meet the titular King at a turning point in his tenure. Having succeeded to the throne at the age of ten, little more than 20 years earlier, he is a rapacious and self aggrandizing monarch who has been insolated from the dissatisfaction which his heedless reign has caused by his entourage of selfish sycophants. His armies are deployed adventurously abroad in Ireland, and he is responsible for the recent murder of his uncle, the Duke of Gloster. However, Richard, having succeeded to the throne lawfully, is the beneficiary of the acceptance of the concept that he rules by divine right.
However, in adjudicating a dispute between his cousin Henry Bolingbroke and another member of the royal court, Richard banishes both from England and then unjustly usurps Bolingbroke’s lands. Thus are loosened the dogs of war.
Director Paul Mullins has delivered a lean and muscular production. Events flow swiftly and interest never wanes. The various principals (most notably, Richard and his uncles and cousins) each are well defined and differentiated.
Although ultimately no great damage is done, the elimination of Act I, Scene II and, with it, the Duchess of Gloster is puzzling. In this scene, the Duchess urges John of Gaunt to avenge the murder of his brother, her late husband, and Gaunt rejects her plea because he feels that only the Almighty has the power to act against the King. Without it, the evil conduct of Richard and the outrageousness of Henry’s actions are both somewhat muted. Also the writing in this scene is poetic and powerful.
As Richard II, David Conrad conveys the complexities of the no longer child-king who is too immature to have acquired compassion and too weak to defend himself when faced with adversity. Conrad nicely conveys Richard’s late dawning maturity in his concern for the future of his wife, Queen Isabel. Patrick Boll is an appropriately guarded Henry. Boll leaves it for the audience to determine the quality of his motivation for his actions.
Geddeth Smith is sympathetic as John of Gaunt, torn by the enormous gap between his principals and his feelings. David Manis is likeable and appealing as the upright Duke of York.
Maria Kelly (Queen Isabel), Cynthia Mace (Duchess of York), Chris Landis (Duke of Amerle) and Eric Hoffmann (Duke of Surrey) lead a solid, praiseworthy supporting cast.
Set designer Tobin Ost provides an effective unit set with bleacher like steps and a high platform which thrust the action directly into the audience. Hugh Hanson’s unassuming neo-classical costumes are simple and functional.
This Richard II is highly recommended to all without reservation. For those who are admirers of Shakespeare and have not yet seen this truly outstanding play, it is mandatory viewing.
(At a symposium at the conclusion of the performance reviewed two audience members commented on the ease of hearing vis-à-vis earlier STNJ productions. This corner also noted the considerable improvement.)
Richard II by William Shakespeare continues performances through August 29 at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s Kirby Theatre on the campus of Drew University, 36 Madison Avenue at Lancaster Road, Madison, New Jersey, 07940. Box Office at 973-408-5600; online at www.ShakespeareNJ.org
Richard II by William Shakespeare; directed by Paul Mullins. Cast: David Conrad (King Richard II); Maria Kelly (Queen Isabel); Geddeth Smith (John of Gaunt); Patrick Boll (Henry Bolingbroke); David Manis (Duke of York); Cynthia Mace (Duchess of York); Chris Landis (Duke of Amerle); Matthew Montelongo (Thomas Mowbray); LeRoy McClain (Sir John Bushy); Michael Ellison (Sir William Bagot); Michael Earle (Sir Henry Green); Duncan Hazard (Bishop of Carlisle);Brian Schilb (Earl of Salisbury); Eric Hoffmann (Duke of Surrey); Michael Rossmy (Captain of Welsh Army); Craig Wallace (Henry Percy); Kelvin O’Bryant (Harry Percy); Matt D’Amico (Sir Piers of Exton); Michael Kroeker (Lord Fitzwater); Drew Doyle (Lord Berkeley); Christina Cherry (Margueritte); Michael Sossiadis (Timothy).