Saturday, October 31, 2015

Margin Notes: Richard II

Morgan Hooper as Richard II (with Kitty Mortland as
Duke of Aumerle). Photo by John Hoffman.

Seen on: Wednesday, 10/28/15.
My grade: B.

Plot and Background
Richard II, a young king given to whim and jest more than serious thought, is in the final years of his reign when an arbitrary banishment to end a dispute leads to rebellion by his cousin Bolingbroke. Although Richard abdicates his throne readily - if unhappily - it soon becomes clear that it is not so simple to merely lock away the fallen king in a prison. One of Shakespeare's histories, Richard II was probably written in 1595 and serves as the first part of the Henriad tetrology (followed by Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, and Henry V). Richard II is presented in rep with Romeo and Juliet by Hamlet Isn't Dead, the self-proclaimed "286th-best Shakespeare-related theatre troupe" in New York. Their mission is to present Shakespeare's work in chronological order.

Disclosure, and
What I Knew Beforehand
I've seen Mark Rylance play Richard II at The Globe, and Ben Whishaw play the role in The Hollow Crown series for BBC, which featured it as the first in the series. I've seen some of Hamlet Isn't Dead's work in the past, and I'm friends with the director, Emily C. A. Snyder.


Play: From the first line of the play, director Snyder makes her vision clear. King Richard II strolls onstage alone and begins his famous Act V monologue:
     I have been studying how I may compare
     This prison where I live unto the world:
     And for because the world is populous
     And here is not a creature but myself,
     I cannot do it; yet I'll hammer it out.
And suddenly the stage is flooded with courtiers, and the play begins proper. Thus the narrative is framed as a sort of flashback - Richard is able to repopulate his prison and examine how he got to this point. The motif continues when his wife, Queen Isabella, trapped in her courtly life to a husband she does not fully understand, begins the same speech; and then again when Bolingbroke, at sea in the growing momentum of his rebellion against Richard, finds himself with crowd and crown in hand. This is a world of prisons where each character is his own jailer. The tragedy of Richard II is how many points along the way the audience can see a bloodless solution hiding in the characters' blind spots. So many times, were the characters able to pause and examine, perhaps swallow a bit of pride, could this all have sorted differently - no banishment, no insurrection, no murder, no abdication, no secret plotting. But in their isolation, in their individual prisons, all they can do is stumble on, heedless of the bloody barriers in their way. Snyder understands this acutely and crafts her production - staged in the challenging alley formation - cleanly and with little ornament, relying on the words and the people speaking them to convey the narrative.