Neill Robertson in Richard II. Photo courtesy of KY Shakespeare.
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Amy Attaway
Review by Keith Waits
Entire contents are copyright © 2017 Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
Neill Robertson is having a very good year. After a triumphant turn in Hedwig and the Angry Inch just one month ago, he here presents us with a Richard II that is nothing less than a lesson for us all.
But first, Richard is a great play. Although it doesn’t rank as one of the most recognizable, iconic of Shakespeare’s plays, it is filled with beautiful language and a story that serves as a vital entry point in the Henry tetralogy, sometimes known as “the Henriad,” the Bard of Avon’s essential cycle of work charting the War of the Roses.
Richard was crowned at the tender age of eleven and, although now an adult still seems to lack the worldliness and ruthlessness of power found in the next Richard (III). In Shakespeare’s terms, he is weak. In a lengthy but crucial opening set of scenes, Richard arbitrates a conflict between Thomas Mowbray (Crystian Wiltshire) and Henry Bolingbroke (Tom Luce). The strife between the two is deep-seated, and the monarch’s approach is politically naive, betraying a profoundly shallow knowledge of human conflict and honor among noblemen.
In the moment where Richard stops the two men from killing one another and instead banishes them both, it is easy to sympathize with the king for his opposition to the barbaric violence, but when Bolingbroke’s father, John of Gaunt (Monty Priddy) becomes gravely ill, Richard exults at the prospect of absorbing the old man’s lands and wealth to fill the royal coffers. When, with the same motivation, he goes to war in Ireland, his enemies move against him.
Director Amy Attaway has made much of a Game of Thrones comparison to Kentucky Shakespeare’s embrace of producing the Henriad over the next few years, and it is certainly savvy marketing strategy, but that dominant popular entertainment finds its inspiration in the War of the Roses, so there is sound foundation in the evaluation, and she positions an impressive throne on a raised platform center stage. Even when unoccupied, it retains focus as an object of desire.
She also fully exploits the strength of the estimable company of actors, so that Mr. Robertson’s monarch is fully supported by actors who are all given full embrace and memorable moments in the spotlight. Central Park veteran Monty Priddy captures John of Gaunt’s final moments with such depth and insight in two successive speeches, the first a rumination on the state of his beloved England:
This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
Followed by a humorous play on his name and a heartbreaking farewell. Here is where the poetry shapes the feeling of the piece and the emotional aspects of the play come to the fore, beautifully rendered by Mr. Priddy, a modest treasure of Louisville theatre.
Later, as Bolingbroke requests the allegiance of the Duke of York, J. Barrett Cooper delicately deconstructs the anguish in the hearts of men torn between loyalties of equal weight, chastising the usurper for his rebellion before acquiescing with an invitation to decamp in his castle.
Tom Luce gives Bolingbroke solid righteous power and dignity, but also humanity and grief at what he has been forced to undertake. And it speaks to the depth and strength of the repertory company that players of the quality of Gregory Maupin, Abigail Bailey Maupin, Jon Huffman, Dathan Hooper, and Jon Patrick O’ Brien here register multiple supporting roles with authority. Younger players Jon Becraft, James Stringer, Jr., and Shaleen Cholera acquit themselves in equal measure, and Alisha Espinoza does well enough by Queen Isabela to make us see her as an underrated gem of a female character in the Shakespeare canon.
Later in the second act, when the Duke of York discovers his son (Chloe Bell) to be in league with conspirators, he enters into a sublimely comic battle with his wife (Jennifer Pennington) over the question of turning him in. Cooper, Pennington, and Bell seem to be having way too much fun in this sequence, and a tip of the hat to Mr. Stringer for weathering the storm of boots and shoes that come his way as a servant. The shift in tone is expertly judged and enacted by real pros, and gives the narrative a jolt of energy at a crucial moment in the evening.
There is also an extended and silly exchange of challenges and gauntlets thrown to the ground that cannot help but have the feeling, given the feminist sensibility at the helm, of satirical commentary on masculine posturing.
But what of Richard? Neill Robertson looks grand in the classical Elizabethan wardrobe of kings, and the early scenes of a monarch laughing giddily on his throne are meant to undermine his credibility, but as his hold on power collapses, Robertson builds such emotional complexity that the audience’s relationship to the character is always fluid. The exquisite dialogue emerges from the actor’s lips with such natural and unpretentious force that the words feel immediate and new, as if they had just been thought of. As the controlled, measured tones of the arrogant young king give way to the panic and anger of the threatened monarch, Robertson lets not one moment pass unexploited, taking the fullest measure of the role.
The Game of Kings concept is magnificently realized in the costumes by Donna Lawrence-Downs, which feel weighty but also sensuous in their patterns and textures. And the icing on the cake is original music by Scott Carney and Wax Fang that give the appropriate epic quality to the proceedings, evocative of fantastical cinematic adventures without seeming derivative.
The idea that we will experience this same company, many in the same roles, next summer in Henry IV Part One is a heady notion. It’s exactly what Kentucky Shakespeare should be doing.
June 15-18, 20-25, July 13, 16, 18, 22
Kentucky Shakespeare Festival
C Douglas Ramey Theater at Central Park
Louisville, KY 40202
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of PUBLIC on WXOX-FM 97.1/ ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.