When the stage lights break through the darkness in the first few minutes of Seattle Shakespeare Company’s Richard II, the audience gets a bold image of the titular character sitting on an ominous wooden throne. He’s crowned, wearing fur and gold robes, and holds a scepter in his left hand. In that swift image is the heart of the play. Lauded as both a history and a tragedy, Richard II lays out themes such as power, duality and politics, providing a strong and timely (despite the almost 400 year gap) mirror to struggles we face in modern society. Richard’s downfall brings to the forefront the ability for human beings to change, cast off canonical ideas, and rise to a higher level of intellectual reasoning.
When Richard II (played by the excellent George Mount, Seattle Shakes’ Artistic Director) is first presented to the audience he is in his early 30s, having been England’s monarch since he was just 10 years old. He’s been summoned to settle a dispute between his cousin Henry Bolingbroke (David Foubert) and Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk (Mike Dooly) over misused money and the recent murder of the Duke of Gloucester. (Bolingbroke accuses Mowbray of both). Despite reluctance at court a duel is scheduled, but just as the men are about to draw, Richard leaps from the throne and sentences both to banishment from England; Bolingbroke for six years, and Mowbray for life.
Shortly after, Richard’s uncle John of Gaunt dies (Dan Kremer), and he seizes all his money and land (despite the fact that it rightfully belongs to Bolingbroke) to help fund his war against Ireland. This upsets the nobility, and a group secretly helps bring Bolingbroke back to England, where lines between family, aristocracy and church are drawn, and some people pay for their choice of sides with their lives.
Scenic designer Carol Wolfe Clay keeps it sparse on set with little more than a large throne that is maneuvered around the stage on wheels to become a castle tower or a wall in a prison. There are also two pillars, one of each side of the stage. This simplicity only adds to the production, removing excess clutter and distraction, forcing the audience to concentrate solely on the actors. The relationships between the people are the focus of the play. Costume designer Jocelyne Fowler stays in sync with the sparse visuals, costuming the cast in neutral tones—browns, creams, tans, black boots—creating a unifying effect, while no one person (aside from Richard at the beginning) stands out much more than the others due to their clothing. With up to 14 people on the stage at the same time, this is a good thing. Richard II is not an easy comedy or a romance; even for someone who is familiar with Shakespeare it requires attention to detail.
One unfortunate slip up is that most of the men are outfitted in ill-fitting, slightly saggy stretch pants that are distracting, if only for their sheer ugliness.
Lighting designer Geoff Korf does a fantastic job highlighting and shadowing characters for emotional effect. In a play where so much opposition exists (good vs. evil, state vs. people, country vs. country) and a war is raging in the background, uncertainty lies everywhere—some must hide to save their lives, some are darker than they appear.
Directed by Rosa Joshi, the cast is strong, but as Richard II, George Mount blows it away. During the first act of the play he seems flighty and indecisive, influenced by his cunning court—a frail, almost weak character compared to the rest, especially Mowbray and Bolingbroke, both of who are bombastic and bursting with physicality at the beginning of the play. But as mishaps begin to pile up, and those around him turn their loyalties elsewhere, Richard’s character begins to deepen as he undergoes an existential awakening (almost appearing as madness in the scene where he hands over the crown and then is arrested)—the realization that he is merely another human being, and his “divine monarchy” is a sham, susceptible to overthrow and outsiders. It is a classic Shakespeare motif: the loss of power, the fall of a king. In this production, as Richard falls deeper into melancholy and defeat, George Mount makes his character (who I wrote off as fickle and immature during the first act) empathetic and wise in a believable way. With his downfall comes knowledge and truth, and isn’t that the most precious crown of all?
In the end there still remain questions about the nature of the play—and that’s just part of Shakespeare’s genius. Does Richard bring about his own downfall, or was it fate that brought in Bolingbroke to abscond with the throne? Who is more evil, and who is really changed? I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again; William Shakespeare was a genius. His plays force you to think. There often isn’t an easy path to answer all the questions that arise, but a well-acted, emotionally moving production always helps lead the way.
Richard II runs through February 2. Tickets here.
Above: David Foubert, Brandon J. Simmons, Reginald Andrew Jackson, and George Mount in Richard II. Photo by John Ulman.