10 June 2001: Shakespeare, King Richard II

American Repertory Company, Cambridge. Directed by Robert Woodruff (new artistic-director designate), with Thomas Darrah as Richard

A very controversial production because of Woodruff’s heavy emphasis on homosexual aspects of the play (as the twentieth century views them). The emphasis is so pervasive in the first scenes of the play that, my companion and I thought, it gets in the way completely of the play itself. The style in these scenes is an eclectic combination of Chinese Opera and Italian opera. Richard is in Whiteface, as are his wife (played by an Asian actress) and one or more of his retainers, in effect boy toys. Richard’s dressing table is off — no, on — stage right, and before the play begins we see him, stripped to the waist, and around the waist a form similar to a classical tu-tu to go under the sort of skirt-suit he wears in these scenes. He is stroking his body (his back to us), looking into the mirror and loving what he sees. The by-play in the first scenes is extremely distracting; we can hardly follow the action itself. Woodruff has altered the sequence of scenes, conflating I.i and I.iii into one scene, which follows I.ii (now the opening scene) between the Duchess of Gloucester and John of Gaunt. (Alvin Epstein is game for anything, but he looks distinctly uncomfortable in a red ruff that encloses his head — frames it, in fact.) Richard’s cavorting and antics are played up, deliberately, it seems, to be way out of proportion to the business of the scene. A little later, when Richard gets the news that John of Gaunt is dying, he gets it in what seems is his own private male brothel, where a half-dozen or so of prime male specimens, clad only in white dance belts laced at the back like corsets, are receiving from Richard loving strokes and other ministrations that go about as far on stage as indecency permits. (Several members of the audience walked out at this point.)

It’s often said that in his tragedies Shakespeare begins by giving us a central figure who seems highly unpromising as an incipient tragic hero (Lear comes to mind at once). Woodruff would seem to be pursuing this rhetorical line, with a vengeance. This Richard is the epitome of loathsome, repulsive self-indulgence, completely preoccupied with self-pleasure.

And then the sky falls in. The banished Bolingbroke, claiming he comes “but for my own” — his wealth, confiscated by Richard to fund his wars with those Irish “rug-headed kerns,” arrives on English soil in Richard’s absence. And Richard on his return finds himself faced with a fait accompli. He has lost his base of power completely, and his downward course begins. This is the scene in which he protests that “Not all the water in the rough rude sea / Can wash the balm off from an anointed king.” (Later, in the deposition scene, he talks of his tears as accomplishing the task the rude sea could not.) The sea, and water itself, elemental water, becomes a central factor in the rest of the action of the play. There is a large tank of water, deep enough for standing in waist-high. A trapdoor can be removed from the center of the steeply raked wooden platform on which the play is performed (no wings at all, and we can see the full extent of the off-stage area, light fixtures and all). Characters fall off the stage into it. And when Richard returns from Ireland, he literally enters out of the water, soaking wet, as if from an epitomized rough, rude Irish sea. He wears the tatters of what were once cloth garments; by and large, this is his costume throughout the rest of the action.

And so there is an enormous, and telling, contrast between the elaborate artifice and affectation of the first two acts and the unadorned humanity of the rest of the play. Bolingbroke and his followers are dressed, in great contrast, in long leather coats and high boots, the coats having a vague Regency cut with their extra-wide lapels.

Thomas Darrah’s performance as Richard is stunning and unforgettable. He knows what he was but not who he is. In fact, he becomes elemental humanity shown in the aspect of mortality. In this large context, his “sad stories of the death of kings,” told, as they sit on the ground in the Act III return scene, becomes the real keynote for the play. We can never forget that in “the hollow crown / That rounds the mortal temples of the king / Keeps Death his court.” This is the only production of the play I have seen that has made sense of, and given proper prominence to, Richard’s reference to his own body as “this small model of the barren earth.”

There is some brilliant writing in this play, and once out of the grotesquerie that characterizes — and overwhelms — the first scenes of the play, Darrah does ample justice to it. Darrah, whom we have seen on the ART stage for years and years (as Feste, as Lear’s Fool, and in a hundred other parts), can sometimes come across as a mannered actor. But he is unfailingly a very physical actor, and this quality is what makes him a perfect actor of the role.

Some especially memorable scenes:

— Richard emerging from the “Irish sea” to find his kingdom is gone;

— the balcony scene at Pomfret Castle: a huge, towering cylindrical “ladder” is put in place at stage right. Richard climbs almost to the top (Darrah turns out to be an accomplished gymnast), curling arms, legs, ankles even, and torso around its vertical and horizontal pieces to keep him stable, while he leans out over the stage, speaking his lines, or withdraws back into the open cylinder. When he finds that he must “submit,” must “come down,” he descends slowly, mournfully, yet with great energy;

— the deposition scene — when Richard calls for a mirror, the mirror in his “dressing room” on the stage floor to the right of the main platform is brought: this ties in, with great irony, the early Richard with the king who has now lost everything and no longer knows who he is, what his name is. He looks at himself in the mirror, and then slams it down on the floor. We hear the sound of breaking glass. And then Richard stands on it, walks on it. The nobles are greatly concerned he will cut himself. But we understand that he is standing on the image, the “shadow” of himself;

— the last act — first scene: played in the tank of water. The stage floor has cables attached to it at the downstage end, and it is raised up to make a sort of steep roof over the tank. Richard plays the scene in the tank. Darrah’s energy is phenomenal, held confidently and consistently to the end, when in an explosion of energy — “What means death [i.e. what means of death to these murderers can I find?] In this rude assault?” — And he finds a dagger on one of them, kills him, and then is himself killed.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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