nytheatre.com review by Matthew Trumbull
September 14, 2006
Richard II contains some of the most elegant soliloquies in the Shakespearean canon, and in the midst of a political era when many do a double-take if the President admits a mistake, it is stirring to see Michael Cumpsty as the crowned king, facing usurpation by sitting in dirt on the stage and admitting that things have gone terribly afoul in England.
When Shakespeare wrote this play (approx. 1595), the notion that monarchs ruled by Divine Right, i.e., God fated them as individuals to be crowned and rule on Earth in His stead, was still very much in vogue and embodied by Elizabeth I. To defy, or worse, unseat a king from the throne was to defy God Himself. But when Henry Bolingbroke, Richard II's cousin, is banished from England at the top of the play under suspicion of treason, and then denied his inheritance by Richard upon the death of his venerable father, John of Gaunt, his mind and aim is to right these wrongs with an invading force of thousands. Richard, his mind perpetually dwelling on his woefully meager war chest and Irish rebels that just won't settle down and be occupied, has overtaxed and burned bridges with the English nobility for years, and now, after hoarding Bolingbroke's deserved inheritance, has virtually no friends or troops who will stand with him against his popular cousin. With only his remaining pride drawn to his banner, Richard hands his crown and power to Bolingbroke, and suffers imprisonment before he is finally assassinated by zealous followers of the new king.
So, one could indeed steal the crown and not get zapped by lightning from on high—a new and dangerous realization in England. Claiming God on his side does certainly sound good when a leader is in trouble:
Richard II: The breath of worldly men cannot depose
The deputy elected by the Lord.
For every man than Bolingbroke hath pressed
To lift up shrewd steel against our golden crown,
God for his Richard hath in heavenly pay
A glorious angel...heaven still guards the right.
But of course, our American leaders today are understood to be as mortal as those they hold status over. Perhaps this is so ingrained in our modern minds that it gets taken for granted, and true humility and self-awareness becomes scarce when a leader speaks on our televisions today.
Pity, though, is felt for a leader who humbles himself. Despite having seen Richard indulge in abusive power, not to mention cocaine, we feel tremendous pity during Cumpsty's heartbreaking portrayal of this king, and it is powerful to witness him, doted on by no one, fetch his own crown, and literally place it in the hand of his enemy Bolingbroke. That is the magic trick wielded by this play, and this production handles it skillfully, especially through the chops of several noteworthy performances, including Cumpsty's, George Morfogen as Richard's uncle the Duke of York, Jon DeVries as John of Gaunt, and the show-stealing Ellen Parker who, in the small role of the Duchess of York, received the night's sole exit applause. I think many in the house would have stood with me in line and paid handsomely to see a whole play about her.
The director Brian Kulick has led things along at a tight pace, and given careful attention to the many characters and complex relationships that people this time in England's history, when allegiances changed on a dime and grievances for events long past were tenaciously remembered for perhaps generations by the descendants of the wronged. It is an appreciated effort, as the supporting characters in this saga are not always as sharply drawn as in some of the other Shakespearean history plays.
The design of the production is elegant while not drawing attention away from the actors and the words. Oana Botez-Ban gives her costumes a dashing 1940s feel, with suits on the men and imposing leather overcoats on Bolingbroke's invading army. Tom Gleeson's set design is focused on the ground level, making the upper reaches of the theatre seem quite vast, which has the intriguing effect of making Richard seem quite mortal when he is on the floor surface, and not up high on his lofted platform and stairs unit, a very apt set piece for Richard's world. The only troubling element of the set is an enormous photo of Michael Cumpsty that sprawls ceiling to floor across the back wall of the theatre. Due to its grainy, unfocused nature, it is difficult to tell that it is Cumpsty in the photo. While the average audience member could probably guess that it is the main character of the play that would be portrayed in such a overwhelming fashion, the lack of definition in the photo certainly leaves room for doubt.
This is the third Shakespearean collaboration between Kulick and Cumpsty, and the second of those collaborations for Classic Stage, after last year's Hamlet. It seems to be a combination that works, and I look forward to more, which is available on three upcoming Sundays (September 24, October 1, and October 8) as the cast of Richard II reads from another tragic saga of a beleaguered king, Christopher Marlowe's Edward II, as part of their Open Rehearsal Series.