Note: This is the first in a series of four reviews of Shakespeare’s Great Cycle of Kings, now playing at The Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) and presented by the Royal Shakespeare Company and Ohio State University. Click through for reviews of the other plays in the series: Henry IV, Part I, Henry IV, Part II, Henry V; and for a series overview, click here.
by JK Clarke
Richard II, the first play in the “Cycle of Kings” is possibly the most underappreciated, underrated Shakespeare play of all. While serious students of Shakespeare may be aware, the casual fan is generally unacquainted with the play’s dynamics and stunningly beautiful language. So, it comes as no surprise that when this outstanding play is given first rate treatment it immediately becomes the hottest show in town (Hamilton notwithstanding). I’m sorry to say that if you don’t already have your ticket to see Richard II at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) this month, you’re not likely to see it . . . unless you’re willing to pay double or triple face value through a broker. So, yes, one of Shakespeare’s less celebrated histories is presently the play to see. All that can provided here—rather than a recommendation to see or not see the play—is a description of what you will probably be disappointed to miss out on. All apologies.
Richard II is a unique work from the outset, being one of only four Shakespeare plays (the others also being histories) written entirely in verse. Producing a play written this way can present problems: if the language is not mastered by the actors, the lines can end up sounding like a Dr. Seuss book, with a bouncing, syncopated beat. But, when handled with expertise, as is the case in this production, it’s simply gorgeous. There’s not only pomp and majesty when celebrated English actor David Tenant, as Richard, unveils such beautiful lines—like “ . . . let us sit upon the ground/ and tell sad stories of the death of kings”—but an elegant, poetic flow of language in which it’s easy to lose oneself.
The story of Richard II isn’t terribly complicated. Richard, son of the esteemed Edward, The Black Prince (who was known for military triumphs at the Battles of Poitiers and Crécy during the 100 Years War), ascends the throne at the tender age of 10 years and becomes a capricious, tyrannical and ineffective leader. At the play’s start he settles a dispute involving accusations of treason by calling off at the last minute a duel between Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Hereford (a very excellent, robust Jasper Britton) and Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk (Christopher Middleton). Instead, he exiles them both, and it’s a tragic mistake (along with pillaging the lands of deceased noblemen to fund foreign wars) that creates enemies and ultimately costs him his crown and his life. By play’s end Bolingbroke usurps the throne, becoming King Henry IV.
The contrasts between the two kings is beautifully illustrated by director Gregory Doran, who has created an effete, fashionable (stunning period costumes by Stephanie Arditti) and quite demonstrably homosexual (he shares a long, passionate kiss with the Duke of Aumerle (Sam Marks) his cousin and lover)—a characterisation that is not always pronounced but is quite evident in the text. But Tenant’s Richard is not so one-dimensional as all that. One minute he is petulant and childish, but the next, with a flash of rage in his eyes, he is calculating and vicious. Clearly a man descended from great kings and with royal blood coursing through his veins, he’s also a young man never given the opportunity to grow up. And when he is overthrown, there’s something Christ-like in his surrender and self-sacrifice. Bolingbroke, on the other hand, is large, brutish and forceful.
Like a much better written version of The Game of Thrones, this production never misses a moment of pomp and ceremony, from the glorious chorus of sopranos who open the play with haunting, distinguished and ethereal songs from the balcony on one side of the stage to the three trumpeteers on the opposite balcony creating a sense of awe and majesty. This is a royal court (and later battlefields and castles) come to life, creating a sense of tension and thrilling dread at Richard’s impending doom. No detail is overlooked and no actor is off his mark. It’s a precise, gripping play that creates stock-still silences, raucous laughter (occasionally) and an ecstatic outburst from the audience at play’s end. The only shortfall is the schedule: this play should be extended through the rest of the year so that everyone who wants can have a chance to see it.
Richard II (First play of Shakespeare’s Great Cycle of Kings quadrilogy). Through May 1 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater (651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn). www.bam.org
Photos by Richard Termine