According to the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, the last time “Richard II” was performed in Baltimore was nearly 200 hundred years ago. The last performance the theater troupe can find record of occurred in 1832 and featured John Wilkes Booth’s father as the titular character.
That’s a long hiatus, but it perhaps isn’t that surprising. “Richard II” lacks the slapstick humor and love triumphant that characterizes so many of Shakespeare’s popular comedies, nor does it have the easy villainy or heartbreak of many of his tragedies. It’s instead a play of political struggle that deals with questions of power and the divine right of kings. While the rights of a church-sanctioned throne isn’t exactly a theme that contemporary American audiences are usually concerned about, CSC’s production, with a quick pace and sparse scenery, keeps the drama tense with political intrigue and moral ambiguity.
The play opens with Henry Bolingbroke (Patrick Kilpatrick), the king’s cousin, and Thomas Mowbray (Daniel Flint) asking for the king to judge their dispute, in which Bolingbroke accuses Mowbray of squandering the king’s money. Over Richard’s objections, the two men challenge each other to a duel. Richard at first allows the duel to proceed, but then abruptly halts it and instead exiles both men from Britain, despite the anguish of Bolingbroke’s father, John of Gaunt (Frank B. Moorman). This is but the first in the set of bad decisions that will ultimately lead to a royal coup and Richard’s demise.
Jonas David Grey’s King Richard has the air of a precocious child who is determined to pretend he can carry his own among adults—an appropriate characterization for a king who took the throne when he was only 10 years old. He’s haughtily blind to the limitations of his own power and believes that his divine right to the crown will protect him, even as a dying Gaunt, in a riveting performance from Moorman, bitterly spits, “Landlord of England art thou now, not king,” predicting Richard’s downfall.
And yet, although Richard is clearly an incompetent and arrogant ruler, Grey still garners our sympathy for him. When Richard ultimately surrenders his crown to his challenger Bolingbroke, his affect of ironic detachment falters, as though he can finally understand the magnitude of what he’s doing, and you can see his genuine distress for the first time. Later, our sympathy for him only grows as he’s forced to say goodbye to his queen (Chelsea Mayo), who is being exiled to France as Richard is sent to the Tower of London. She pleads not to be parted from him, to no avail, and Richard’s obvious love and sorrow tugs at the conscience.
Adding to the moral ambiguity of the play is the fact that Bolingbroke—or at least Kilpatrick’s portrayal of him—is not a particularly winning or convincing leader (although that could just be because Kilpatrick seemed emotionally flat in the opening catalytic scene). He has the support of the vast majority of the nobles, but does Richard’s injury against him—seizing Bolingbroke’s inheritance after his father’s death—justify Bolingbroke defying the will of the church and seizing the crown? Yes, Richard is suspected of ordering the death of his uncle, Lord of Gloucester, but Bolingbroke and his allies then execute several of Richard’s closest allies in retribution. Who is in the right?
Standing in the middle of this is Richard and Bolingbroke’s uncle, the Duke of York (played excellently by Michael P. Sullivan), to whom Richard entrusts the care of the throne when he decides to ride off to an ill-conceived battle in Ireland in the first act. Sullivan makes plain York’s internal struggles over which cousin to support, Richard or Bolingbroke. “Both are my kinsmen: The one is my sovereign, whom both my oath and duty bids defend,” he anguishes. “The other again is my kinsman, whom the king hath wrong’d, whom conscience and my kindred bids to right.” Even when he does finally choose and stands at Bolingbroke’s side, Sullivan’s emotional turmoil and eventual boundless loyalty to Bolingbroke continues to capture the audience’s attention
The play comes to an end when, spoiler alert, Richard is murdered in the Tower by some friends of Bolingbroke—now King Henry—and his body is presented to court. Henry quickly denounces the act, then pledges to go on a pilgrimage to atone for this sin—and then the whole thing is abruptly over. There’s no real sense of victory; rather, the audience is just left with the uneasy acceptance of a new regime that has come at an uncomfortable, immoral cost. And maybe that makes it the perfect history play for this moment, when only the politicians who throw mud seem to get ahead and voting for a governor feels like selecting the lesser of two evils.
For more information visit chesapeakeshakespeare.com.