"Not all the water in the rough rude sea/ Can wash the balm from an anointed king./ The breath of worldly men cannot depose/ The deputy elected by the Lord.”
Richard of Bordeaux became King of England in 1377. His coronation was worthy of a god. The day before the ceremony he rode in a parade to Westminster Hall dressed in pure white linen. Everyone else dressed dark. Richard rode under hails of golden flowers and past fountains filled with wine. The carefully prepared spectacle made him resemble, says a chronicler, “Christ’s entry in the Heavenly Jerusalem.” The take-away: this was England’s new messiah.
When Richard of Bordeaux became King Richard II of England, he was ten years old.
Imagine the effect on a child king raised to believe he was literally “god’s substitute” and held the throne by “divine right.” It’s a narcissist’s Valhalla. Pampered beyond belief, Richard expected veneration. His every word, whether true or faked on the spot, became instant law. A mere aside could take a life, “such is the breath of kings.”
By all accounts, Richard II was a frivolous, self-indulgent megalomaniac who sported the latest Italian fashions and an ermine cloak weighed down with gold. He was also a gravely incompetent ruler, often making snap decisions based on whim. But he was the king. Though England was coming apart, and though he may have ordered the Duke of Gloucester murdered, Richard’s subjects could not object. The Lord’s anointed could not do wrong.
In Shakespeare’s King Richard II, as his tyranny prompts his fall, the king’s language rises. According to the Bard, Richard was miscast; he should have been a poet, not a king. If so, he may have rivalled his contemporary, Geoffrey Chaucer (1343–1400), as England’s first great one.
Instead, he was the last in a line of “God’s deputies.” His successor, King Henry IV, violated the divine order by usurping the throne. He earns his political power not from above but from the people. He’s an image-conscious politician, “the king of smiles” who courts his subjects for favors. In effect, King Richard II marks a dramatic change of world views.
John Lee Beatty’s set at the Old Globe tells the story almost by itself. A gigantic wall, ugly, menacing, with three tiers of house-shaped double-doors, looms behind the stage like an impenetrable barrier. But it’s in decay. Grass grows between the floorboards. Smudges of black rust blur the once-gold panels. When they open and backlit actors enter, there’s a sense of intrusion. After intermission, when all doors open, the wall resembles a Roman aqueduct, behind which are green rows of ivy and shrubs.
Beatty may have got a clue from Act Three, scene two, where Richard has been likened to a wall, made of “brass impregnable,” surrounding his people. But his enemy “with a little pin bores through his castle wall, and farewell king.”
Beatty also enhances one of the play’s ruling metaphors. England, many say, is a garden. Flatterers, like weeds, had Richard’s ear. King Henry IV — Prince Hal’s tormented father — must prune them. To cinch the point, Shakespeare names two of the villains “Bushy” and “Green.” In effect, Beatty locates the garden outside the oppressive wall and beyond Richard’s aegis.
The Globe’s other design elements also serve the play. Stephen Strawbridge’s lighting shifts from dungeon-dark to streaks of sunshine. Andrea Lauer’s costumes straddle the line between Medieval and Renaissance. Bolingbroke’s forces favor earthy tones, to blend in with the common-folk; King Richard dons a white floor-length tunic that’s almost snow-blinding bright.
The design elements are all in place, but the acting and some interpretations are another matter.
At least half the cast is “doing” — rather than “being” — Shakespeare. Stiff, formal, often wavering, they are more concerned with getting the lines right than building a character. Harry Percy, for example, is the alpha-hyper Hotspur of Henry IV, Part 1. Here he’s just another rebel.
Other efforts are overdone. Patrick Kerr’s York struts and frets with inane antics, as if he’s comic relief, rather than a being trapped between colliding world views. A majority of the company speaks as if they rehearsed their lines alone. They present them in isolation and rarely connect with their fellow performers.
The more lively actors — Tory Kittles (Bolingbroke), Charles Janasz (the dying Gaunt), and Nora Carroll (Queen Isabel) — make the contrast even starker.
Director Erica Schmidt devised some eye-catching visuals: as when townsfolk dump their trash on the fleeing king; and, in the end, when women enter from various doors with roses — and prefigure the War of the Roses to follow. Schmidt tampers with the script, however, by having combatants intone lines like Medieval monks and by switching villains at the end; the former is too flashy, the latter’s dead wrong.
What Robert Sean Leonard does with Richard, he does well. If Richard has an internal wall, it’s a barrier of expression. At first he’s constrained by formal matters. As his inner wall fractures, a more expressive speech seeps through, then it spillways into floods of precise, soul-deep poetry.
Leonard has the music and the inflections. But his is a narrow Richard. He rightfully doesn’t pack the king with gaudy excesses and cartooned foppery, as others have. Leonard shows an occasional whim. But he starts as a poet. The choice, though noble in one sense, makes the king’s mighty fall less precipitous, the tragedy less acute.
Richard II, by William Shakespeare
1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park
Directed by Erica Schmidt; cast: Robert Sean Leonard, Tory Kittles, Renardo Charles, Jr., Samuel Max Avishay, Nora Carroll, Connor Sullivan, Larica Schnell, Charles Janasz, Jake Horowitz, Patrick Kerr, John Ahlin, Lorenzo Landini, Ian Lassiter, Amara James Aja; scenic design, John Lee Beatty, costumes, Andrea Lauer, lighting, Stephen Strawbridge, sound, Sten Severson
Playing through July 15, Tuesday through Sunday at 8:00 p.m.TheOldGlobe.org