Stage Door Review 2023

Richard II

Sunday, June 18, 2023


by William Shakespeare, adapted by Brad Fraser, directed by Jillian Keiley

Stratford Festival, Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford

June 17-September 28, 2023

Richard: “What must the king do now?”

The last time the Stratford Festival staged a complete version of Shakespeare’s Richard II was in 1999. It staged the play in 2016 but cut down to 90 minutes so it could play as one half of a double bill with Henry IV, Part 1. The current production is also not Shakespeare’s full text. Brad Fraser’s new adaptation cuts most of the play’s most famous speeches, adds and subtracts characters and alters the plot. People who are thinking of seeing Richard II at Stratford should know that they will be seeing Brad Fraser’s Richard II, not Shakespeare’s. If Fraser’s adaptation helped us understand Shakespeare’s play better, it might be worthwhile. Fraser’s adaption helps us understand only Fraser’s agenda of depicting Richard II as gay, not Shakespeare’s of depicting Richard II as God’s flawed deputy on earth. Jillian Keiley’s production is probably one of the most bizarre any history play at Stratford has received.

Fans of Shakespeare will know that Richard II is the first play in what is called the Shakespeare’s Second Tetralogy of History Plays. It begins with Richard II, in which Henry Bolingbroke of the House of Lancaster deposes Richard II of York and becomes Henry IV. The next two plays are Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, best known for the character of Falstaff. The tetralogy finishes with Henry V and that king’s victory over France which Henry V feels finally legitimizes the rule of the Lancastrians.

Richard II was written in 1595, the same year Shakespeare wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet – thus a masterpiece in each of the main dramatic genres of the period: history play, comedy and tragedy. Richard II shares the same rich poetry as Dream and Romeo and the same theme of illusion versus reality. The difference is that in Richard II Shakespeare poetry and theme are found in the public and politic sphere of behaviour rather than in either fantastic or private worlds. The title role is one of the greatest Shakespeare ever wrote and has drawn such actors at the RSC as Michael Redgrave, Ian Richardson, Alan Howard, Jeremy Irons, Sam West and most recently David Tennant. At the Stratford Festival great interpreters of the role have included William Hutt in 1964, Richard Monette, Nicholas Pennell and Stephen Russell in 1979 and Brian Bedford in 1983.

The notion of treating Richard II as a gay king and relocating the action to the late 1970s and early ‘80s is director Jillian Keiley’s, She says she found the perfect person to adapt the play in gay writer Brad Fraser, best known for his play Love and Human Remains (1989). The Program Notes of Sean Carney ask, “But why does Richard rule so poorly? Is it because he is a gay libertine and having too much fun as king? His rival Henry Bolingbroke (soon to be King Henry IV) seems to think so, and he accuses Richard’s cronies of corrupting the king and drawing him away from his marital bed. Critics have often observed a queer undercurrent to Richard II, and Fraser has brought this element of the play into the foreground, transforming the tragedy into a parable for the AIDS crisis and a commentary on the destructive power of social repression that disguises itself as progressive rebellion”.

This may be what Keiley and Fraser think they are doing in making Richard a gay ruler, but there are many problems with this point of view. The only chronicler to accuse Richard of having homosexual relations is Thomas Walsingham (d.c.1422), who from 1971 on has been discredited as pro-Lancastrian propagandist and scandal-monger. The lines that Keiley refers to in the plays are Bolingbroke’s statements to Richard’s flatterers: “You have in manner with your sinful hour / Made a divorce betwixt his queen and him, / Broke the possession of a royal bed / And stain'd the beauty of a fair queen's cheeks / With tears drawn from her eyes by your foul wrongs” (III.1). What we have to realize is that these are the words of a usurper and constitute calumny not truth. Nothing we see in the scenes between Richard and his queen Isabel suggest there has been any “divorce betwixt” them.

There are English rulers known to have had same-sex relations such as Edward II and James I. Why not revive Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II (1592) or dramatize Rafael Sabatini’s The King’s Minion (1930) about James I and his male lover, rather than force Shakespeare’s highly nuanced play to support the accusations of Richard’s enemies?

In any case, in this Richard II Fraser has done rather more than brought the “queer” “element of the play into the foreground”. In Shakespeare, Richard’s flatterers are Bushy, Bagot and Green. Fraser keeps the first and third but eliminates Bagot. He makes the Duke of Aumerle, Richard’s most forthright supporter into Richard’s dearest lover. Since Aumerle does not appear until Act 3, Scene 3, in Shakespeare, Fraser has to invent quite a lot of dialogue to establish a relationship between them from Act 1. This he does mostly borrowing from Shakespeare’s sonnets.

Fraser’s tastes, unlike Shakespeare’s, run to melodrama so that when Bolingbroke, now Henry IV, asks aloud, “Have I no friend will rid me of this living fear?”, meaning Richard in prison, it is Aumerle, rather than Exton in Shakespeare, who thinks he must prove his loyalty to the new king by killing his own lover. This is all hard to believe since Henry asked for no such proof of loyalty. Thus, Fraser presents the frisson of lover killing lover. As if that were not enough, Fraser has Aumerle drag Richard’s coffin before the king where Fraser grants him a mad scene.

This is simply Fraser’s main alteration of the plot. Much more serious is Fraser’s cutting of the text. Gone is John of Gaunt’s famous speech “This blessed plot, this England”. Gone is the Old Adam the Gardener and almost all his lines from the symbolic Garden Scene which places the action within a cosmic context. Gone is the key moment in Richard’s deposition when he and Bolingbroke hold the crown on either side and Richard says, “Here, cousin, seize the crown” followed by an image of the wheel of fortune which is absolutely central to all the history plays. Gone is most of Richard’s great soliloquy in prison including the line, “I wasted time, and now doth time waste me”. And these are simply the best-known passages.

What takes their place, incredibly, are long disco dance routines performed by characters whom Keiley or Fraser has termed “Angels”. Keiley claims she got the idea for these Angels from the anonymous The Wilton Diptych (c.1395-99) showing Richard with arms outstretched to receive the infant Christ from the Virgin Mary who is surrounded by angels. The trouble with this interpretation is that in the diptych all the angels stand behind the Virgin Mary while Richard is in his own panel backed by three saints, two of them former English kings. Angels are referred to once in the play, when Richard claims, “For every man that Bolingbroke hath pressed / To lift shrewd steel against our golden crown, / God for His Richard hath in heavenly pay / A glorious angel” (III, 1). The Wilton Diptych depicts nothing like this.

The problem with the “Angels” as depicted in the play is that they are all disco denizens and fall easily when confronted with Bolingbroke’s forces. They also seem to go over to Bolingbroke’s side once he has gained enough power. Thus, as Keiley uses them, these “Angels” are really no more than the common people, or “the giddy multitude” as they are called in Henry IV, Part 2. The glittery disco attire and wings make them look important, but in the course of the play, besides moving furniture, they literally do nothing but dance. The many dance interludes that Cameron Carver has choreographed are exciting, but they do nothing whatever to move the action forwards. They are there to entertain and create the supposedly decadent atmosphere of Richard’s court but are otherwise meaningless.

Every time the dance ends, Shakespeare’s verse begins with a clunk. There is so much dance I wondered why not simply rethink Shakespeare’s play as a movement/dance piece, especially if you are going to throw out so much of the text anyway. Marlowe’s Edward II was made into a ballet in 1995. Why not Shakespeare’s Richard II?

As it happens the dance interludes are far more energizing than the spoken sections of the production. Stephen Jackman-Torkoff (they/them) could, with more of Richard’s text restored and with stronger direction, make a fine Richard II. Keiley indulges Jackman-Torkoff’s tendency to overact in the scenes leading up to Richard’s deposition. Trying to make a naughty pun of the name “Norfolk”, raising their voice an octave to make a point, mugging, funny gestures, imitating other characters – all of which makes Richard seem more like a teenager out of control rather than a wilful monarch.

Yet, against this unpromising beginning, Jackman-Torkoff does manage an almost complete change of manner of speech and behaviour once Richard returns to England after his Irish wars. They do go overboard in regreeting England in “Dear earth, I do salute thee with my hand”, but they deliver the great speech “What must the King do now? Must he submit?” as well as the famous Mirror Scene of Act 4, Scene 1 with seriousness and grace.

What Jackman-Torkoff and Keiley miss is the very aspect of Richard II that makes it a great play in general and not just a great history play. They miss the fact that Richard is an actor. Richard is an ordinary person who acts as a divinely-appointed monarch but, unlike so many other rulers in drama, is keenly aware that he only acting. What makes Richard look forward to Hamlet as a character is that they both secretly feel inadequate for what they are asked to do.

Jackman-Torkoff and Keiley do not convey Richard’s tendency to self-dramatize and to get caught up in his own fantasies at the expense of facing reality. They also don’t present Richard’s Mirror Scene as the calculated ploy it is to highlight Bolingbroke’s inhumanity. Carney claims that to understand Richard “we would need to see into the heart of the man, which Shakespeare will not allow us to do”. This is nonsense. If Keiley cut one dance number then maybe she could give us Richard’s entire prison soliloquy in which he expresses his deepest thoughts.

Given how the emphases in the play have been so completely altered it may be no surprise that the finest performance in the play comes from Emilio Vieira in the newly beefed-up role of Aumerle. Vieira Plays Aumerle as the straight-acting, stalwart partner of Jackman-Torkoff’s effeminate, vacillating ruler. Keiley has Aumerle present with Richard in all Richard’s most trying scenes so that we see Aumerle as the rock Richard depends upon. Even in the Fraser’s manufactured melodrama of having Aumerle elect to kill Richard, Vieira makes us understand that Aumerle would rather have someone who loves Richard kill him than a stranger. Vieira’s emphasis on how hard it is for Aumerle to undertake this task does make the killing, contrived as it is, a moving ending for an unhappy man like Richard. Vieira radiates such sorrow that even he even makes the mad scene Fraser gives him make sense.

A cadre of actors seem to have decided to play their parts to their best ability and ignore the extreme peculiarity of the production they are in. One is Tyrone Savage as Mowbray, who even though most of his lines are cut, at least makes clear that Mowbray is a man of high morality who will not allow himself to be scapegoated for Richard’s misdeeds.

David Collins speaks Shakespeare’s verse with such understanding and conveys John of Gaunt’s dignity and authority so well that it is a crime he should be denied the chance to speak Gaunt’s most famous speech. Steve Ross, in a completely non-comic role, foresees with righteous passion the doom that will follow Bolingbroke’s usurpation of the throne. Michael Spencer-Davis plays the Duke of York, Aumerle’s father, with a pious rigour even though he switches sides in the course of the action. His view is duty to the king above all else, no matter who the king is, and Spencer-Davis makes York so strong a speaker that he convinces us that his changing sides is a virtue not a vice.

In a separate category is Charlie Gallant’s excellent performance as Lord Willoughby, who has only two lines in Shakespeare but whom Fraser has made into a symbolic figure of AIDS. In the opening disco scene Keiley shows Willoughby in Bretta Gerecke’s disco wear making out with various males. Later he appears in suits and is on the Lancastrian side. Soon he develops a cough and claims it is nothing to Lord Ross (Matthew Kabwe). The cough becomes a cold and the next thing we know the young Willoughby is using a cane and collapses.

Willoughby’s view, borrowed from King Lear, is “The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices / Make instruments to plague us” to which Fraser adds, “’Tis said this new disease is a punishment”. This is a view consistent with how the Church viewed the bubonic plague in the mid-1300s. Though Willoughby’s sickness and death are far too rapid, Gallant with a minimum of words movingly conveys the growing fear that overcomes his character. Carney claims that Fraser is “transforming the tragedy into a parable for the AIDS crisis”, but the presence of one sick man completely disconnected from the main action hardly constitutes a parable.

Other performances are less successful. Bolingbroke is a very tricky part. Only in Henry’s deathbed confession in Henry IV, Part 2 do we learn what Bolingbroke was thinking when he usurped the crown from Richard. His excuse for taking increasing power is constantly changing. He is a strong leader, unlike Richard, but he is also someone who is willing to break the divine order for personal gain. Jordin Hall simply cannot capture Bolingbroke’s inherent contradictions. Hall has a strong presence, but he is unable show us Bolingbroke on the cusp of being a hero and a villain, much less to bring out the cunning subtlety of Bolingbroke’s speech.

Hannah Wigglesworth as Richard’s wife Isabel is not yet ready for the stage since she can neither project nor make sense of Shakespeare’s verse. Sarah Orenstein, after such a fine performance as Zaira in Grand Magic, plays a regendered Countess of Northumberland and sounds as if she is already bored with the production.

The main reason to see this Richard II is to have an example to contribute when the topic comes up of how directors and adapters can ruin classic works. Describing this foolish disco Richard is sure to have an effect. Why relocate the action from 14th century England to the 1970s/80s New York City and still have characters speak of throwing down gages, angels, Pomfret Castle, the Tower and getting about by horse. Why relocate the action to the 1970s/80s and have costumes that reflect only the 2020s? The disco setting clashes so much with the antique world referred to in the dialogue that it makes both the dialogue and the disco setting seem ridiculous.

Fraser’s adaptation and Keiley’s direction do not make Shakespeare’s play more relevant but instead turn it into a nonsensical fantasy of a gay king. The fact that Richard’s prison has a huge mirror ball hung round with light sabres (or LED rods) is an apt symbol for how completely Keiley and Fraser have trivialized a masterpiece and trapped a great role with their narrow interpretation. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait another 24 years for a full-length, unmutilated Richard II to play at Stratford.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Stephen Jackman-Torkoff as Richard II with members of the cast, © 2023 David Hou; The Wilton Diptych (anon., c. 1395-99), Richard II, kneeling left; Stephen Jackman-Torkoff as Richard II and Emilio Vieira as Aumerle with Angels; Stephen Jackman-Torkoff as Richard II. © 2023 David Hou.

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