Torry Kittles (left) and Robert Sean Leonard in "King Richard II" at the Old Globe. Photo by Jim Cox.
From then-President-elect Trump’s insistence last November that theater be a “safe” place to the recent right-wing excoriation of a New York production featuring a Trump-like “Julius Caesar,” the theatrical stage has been in the crosshairs of the new presidency’s disregard for, and even rancor over, the arts. While the Old Globe announced its 2017 Summer Shakespeare Festival season before The Donald was elected, it’s nonetheless providential that the opening production happens to be King Richard II. A grim but poetical play immersed in questions of power, entitlement and betrayal, it’s a fitting and topical vehicle for this Summer of Bob Mueller.
Even without making contemporary correlations, King Richard II is cracking good political theater. Written in verse, this Shakespeare history (an anchoring point for the subsequent Henry IV, Part 1, Henry IV, Part 2 and Henry V) pits King Richard II (Robert Sean Leonard), who believes he wears the crown by divine right (or mandate?), against his cousin Henry Bolingbroke (Tory Kittles), who with righteousness and an army of rebellious allies seeks to depose the weak king. The future not only of England but of those bound to either man by blood or loyalty is at stake.
Erica Schmidt directs a production on the Globe’s outdoor Lowell Davies Festival stage that rightly focuses on the inevitability of Richard’s fall and, more so, the damage from his usurpation to his faith and to the very core of his inner self. This is clearest and most profound late in the second act, with Leonard intuitively portraying a man, not a ruler ordained by God, whose fate is foredoomed.
Kittles’ Bolingbroke is by contrast more measured, though he effects little charisma. But both Charles Janasz’s fiery John of Gaunt and Patrick Kerr’s excitable Duke of York enliven each scene in which they appear.
From a visual perspective, John Lee Beatty’s monolithic castle-wall set is apt and imposing, and Andrea Lauer’s costumes are evocative down to the finest detail.
With its lone duel in armor aborted early, the language-heavy King Richard II can be plodding. Its conflicts are those of conscience – not always the loudest, but often the most searing. (Review originally published June 21 in San Diego Citybeat.)
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David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.