Rocco Sisto in Rarely Produced Richard II

Launching a S&Co. Tetraology of Four History Plays

By: - Jul 13, 2013

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Richard II
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Timothy Douglas
Set Design, Junghyun Georgia Lee, Costumes, Lena Sands; Lighting, Matthew E. Adelson; Sound, Fitz Patton; Fight Choreographer, Wolfe Coleman; Stage Manager, Hope Rose Kelly

Cast: Rocco Sisto (Richard II), Jonathan Croy (Gaunt/ Gardner 1), Tom O’Keefe (Bolingbroke), Tyrone Mitchell Henderson (Mowbray/ Captain/ Carlisle), Elizabeth Ingram (Gloucester/ Fitzwater/ Groom), Johnny Lee Davenport (Northumberland), Wolfe Coleman (Aumerle), Jake Berger (Gardner2/ Green/ Exton), Jim Nutter (Bushy/ Scroop/ Keeper), Walton Wilson (Duke of York), Rachel Leslie (Queen/ Harry Percy), Kristin Wold (Ross/ Duchess of York), Thomas L. Rindge (Surrey/ Willoughy), Thomas Brazzle (Bagot/ Salisbury)

Shakespeare & Company
Tina Packer Playhouse
July 5 to 21, 2013

Launching a series of four history plays, a tetralogy, through July 21, Shakespeare & Company is presenting a rarely staged and too brief run of Richard II.

Over the next few seasons the program will compare and contrast Shakespeare’s histories with contemporary ones including a number of premieres.

The difficult play, Richard II, is much admired by actors but less so by audiences. There were excerpts and comments by the masterly Derek Jacoby on the role as a segment of a PBS series on understanding Shakespeare. The actor described the play as among the foremost of the Bard’s less heralded works. It has sublimely memorable passages, pull out quotes of the best of the playwright, in a play composed entirely in verse.

The challenge of directing the first play in the history cycle was awarded to Timothy Douglas. Last season we saw him paired with Rocco Sisto, who plays Richard II, as absurd buffoons in The Tempest.

The all in the family approach of artistic director, Tony Simotes, plays to the greatest strength, the range and depth of the superbly trained, multi tasking company. It is the norm to see S&Co. actors in starkly different roles and contexts. Routinely they perform Shakespeare one season and a contemporary play the next. By constantly stirring the sauce the company continues to grow and stay fresh.

For Simotes there is considerable risk taking. He took over a company, a few years ago, on the brink of extinction with staggering debt. That has now been stabilized and allows him to develop an artistic mandate for the company. There is a deep commitment to education, training and community development.

Covering the company, and dialogues with the actors and directors, has been a graduate seminar on classical and contemporary theatre. In this theatrical cosa nostra we all learn from each other.

With an eye to the bottom line, particularly during a period of economic brinksmanship for the arts, it makes sense to play the hits season after season. This year, however, S&Co. is presenting a relatively obscure early comedy, Love’s Labour’s Lost. Paired with that, for the first time, Richard II is being given a full production.

Kudos to Simotes and S&Co. for making a commitment to present the full range of Shakespeare’s work. For the company and aficionados, during opening night, the excitement of seeing a rarely produced play was palpable. Astrid and I had seen it only once before at the Globe Theatre in London.

Since it is so rarely done it is difficult to discuss how Douglas has taken a unique or different approach. There is no iconic film, for example, to compare it to.

Some elements, however, are obvious. The costumes (by Lena Sands) are contemporary and the king eventually is dispatched with a gun. There are intervals of Gospel music between scenes and the production starts with a preacher who tells us to turn off our cell phones.

It is a sad truism of contemporary life that too few give a fig about history. For most twentysomethings, my former students, Genesis began with their birth. Audiences viewing histories through theatre and film expect to see the productions contextualized in terms of their own issues and ideas. There is an attitude of “what’s this got to do with me?” King Lear becomes a play about family values or Macbeth a treatise on greed and blind ambition. Hamlet as a paradigm of proto mannerist existentialism.  Romeo and Juliet gets deconstructed as New York gang wars between the Sharks and the Jets with music and choreography.

What then are the personal hooks of Richard II?

In notes for the current production Dramaturge Katherine Goodland plays along.

“Is it a military coup or the justified deposition of a ruler whose actions alienated him from the nation that legitimized his power? The recent political turmoil in Egypt uncannily evokes the central conflict of Shakespeare’s Richard II. Wheras Egypt is in the process of a painful and uncertain transition to democracy, Shakespeare’s England was negotiating the balance of power between a queen and her parliament at a time when the emerging nation was still traumatized by the religious upheavals of the Reformation. Just as Egypt’s ousted president Mohammed Morsi is being held under armed guard, so deposed Richard II, was held in Pomfret castle…”

There you have it. Richard II as another ripped from the headlines, must see, drama.

That tends to sweep aside the more daunting task of seeing the work within the context of its own era and issues, which is different from, but perhaps a progenitor of our own. It is only when we have learned the lessons of the past that we earn the right to apply them to ourselves.

It is ignorance of the past, and history repeating itself, that renders our culture so bloated, decadent, and possessed of a ripe, soft, vulnerable underbelly.

Shakespeare wrote those histories to give his people a sense of their past and a taste of nationalism.

Consider, for example, the jingoism of Henry V in the Battle of Agincourt. It was pure agit-prop when Olivier starred in the film during the Battle of Britain while the nation was on its heels fighting the Nazis.

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there's nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour'd rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;
Let pry through the portage of the head
Like the brass cannon; let the brow o'erwhelm it
As fearfully as doth a galled rock
O'erhang and jutty his confounded base,
Swill'd with the wild and wasteful ocean.
Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide,
Hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit
To his full height. On, on, you noblest English.
Whose blood is fet from fathers of war-proof!
Fathers that, like so many Alexanders,
Have in these parts from morn till even fought
And sheathed their swords for lack of argument:
Dishonour not your mothers; now attest
That those whom you call'd fathers did beget you.
Be copy now to men of grosser blood,
And teach them how to war. And you, good yeoman,
Whose limbs were made in England, show us here
The mettle of your pasture; let us swear
That you are worth your breeding; which I doubt not;
For there is none of you so mean and base,
That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game's afoot:
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry 'God for Harry, England, and Saint George!'

Shakespeare was teaching audiences, chapter and verse, how to be English; a nation then on the cusp of becoming an Empire. Until then they were quasi French, part Scandinavian, a dash Roman and peppered with Celtic strains.

Chaucer, a subject of Richard II (Richard of Bordeaux a Plantagenet, reigned 1377-1399), was giving England its language, which Shakespeare later refined and established as the official tongue. After which, until the House of Hanover, the monarchs spoke English instead of French and Latin. Although the current House of Windsor mumbles and stumbles through The King’s English as often as they fall off their ponies playing polo.

Today Royalty is stable. Now that they are no longer having their heads chopped off or shot in the cellar at Tsarskoe Selo. That wasn’t always the case.

In the greatest soliloquy, rendered exquisitely by Sisto, the true emotional highlight and essence of Richard II is reached.

No matter where. Of comfort no man speak!
Let's talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs,
Make dust our paper, and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth.
Let's choose executors and talk of wills.
And yet not so -- for what can we bequeath,
Save our deposèd bodies to the ground?
Our lands, our lives, and all are Bolingbroke's,
And nothing can we call our own but death
And that small model of the barren earth
Which serves as paste and cover to our bones.
For God's sake let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings!
How some have been deposed, some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed,
Some poisoned by their wives, some sleeping killed --
All murdered; for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court; and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp;
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be feared, and kill with looks;
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life
Were brass impregnable; and humored thus,
Comes at the last, and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!
Cover your heads, and mock not flesh and blood
With solemn reverence. Throw away respect,
Tradition, form, and ceremonious duty;
For you have but mistook me all this while.
I live with bread like you, feel want, taste grief,
Need friends. Subjected thus,
How can you say to me I am a king?

That, one might argue, has thin threads to Egypt’s Mohammed Morsi. The only connection being that for very different reasons he has been deposed.

The demise of Richard II, a hereditary king answerable only to God, was quite different. In a medieval, feudal manner he ignored the reforms of Magna Carta (1215) and reigned as an absolute monarch which he was not. As schemer and pragmatist, ruling by clever consensus rather than divine fiat, Bolingbroke/ Henry, as a Machiavellian Prince was on the cusp of Renaissance/ Humanist/ Modernism.

Arguably, medieval monarchy had its last gasp in the demise of Richard II.

To settle a dispute between Mowbray (Tyrone Mitchell Henderson) and Bolingbroke (Tom O’Keefe), breaking up a joust (staged here as a bare-chested knife fight) Richard has them both banished. Mowbray (who murdered Woodstock the Duke of Gloucester perhaps at the pleasure of the king) for life, and his accuser, Bolingbroke, for ten years then shortened to six.

When it is announced that John of Gaunt (Jonathan Croy) is mortally ill the king makes no effort to disguise his pleasure. Richard seizes the assets of Bolingbroke the exiled heir. He has no such rights under Magna Carta which protected the properties of the Barons from unwarranted and unlawful confiscation.

With that resource and unpopular taxes, newly funded the king left to subdue the Irish rebels. Richard left the Duke of York (Walton Wilson) as ruler of England.

The abuses and excesses of Richard were viewed as threats by his feudal lords. They conspired to support Bolingbroke who returned from exile to reclaim his rightful inheritance. When virtually all of the Empire rallied behind him he was emboldened to demand the crown.

With the exception of the ill-fated Irish campaign Richard was known to prefer diplomacy and concessions to resolve conflicts and avoid bloodshed. With reluctance, but seeing no support, Richard yielded to King Henry.

Shakespeare wrote magnificent lines for the occasion. It provided Sisto with a poetic and poignant passage in a play that by that point really needs it. Richard hands over the crown with compelling ambivalence underscoring the transience of power from king to subject at the whim of a new unnatural monarch.

Ay, no; no, ay; for I must nothing be;
Therefore no no, for I resign to thee.
Now mark me, how I will undo myself;
I give this heavy weight from off my head
And this unwieldy sceptre from my hand,
The pride of kingly sway from out my heart;
With mine own tears I wash away my balm,
With mine own hands I give away my crown,
With mine own tongue deny my sacred state,
With mine own breath release all duty's rites:
All pomp and majesty I do forswear;
My manors, rents, revenues I forego;
My acts, decrees, and statutes I deny:
God pardon all oaths that are broke to me!
God keep all vows unbroke that swear to thee!
Make me, that nothing have, with nothing grieved,
And thou with all pleased, that hast all achieved!
Long mayst thou live in Richard's seat to sit,
And soon lie Richard in an earthly pit!
God save King Henry, unking'd Richard says,
And send him many years of sunshine days!
What more remains?

The eventual demise of Richard by the assassin Exton is an anti climax. The chagrined Henry now has Richard’s blood on his hands just as Richard had Gloucester’s. By way of penance he will join the Crusades.

No, Richard II is not a great play. It has its moments and sets the cycle in motion. It provides context and a broader understanding of the arguably two great plays Richard III and Henry V.

We are indeed enriched by this production which has been directed with great clarity by Douglas. For those who follow the company it was thrilling to see familiar as well as newer players in challenging roles. O’Keefe, in particular, was superb in providing a dynamic interaction with the more seasoned Sisto. There was remarkable parity in scenes of struggle and conflict. It is always a treat to see the work of Kristin Wold, last season as the sprightly spirit Ariel in the Tempest, and here arguing with comic flourish to save her son Aumerle (Wolfe Coleman) exposed as a conspirator against King Henry.

The greatest challenge of this production is to convey the arc from arrogant power to the pitiful demise of Richard brought down by his own greed and arrogance. The chemistry between Douglas and Sisto was richly evident. While there are few modern benchmarks for the role you sense that they got it right.

In the great scenes Sisto was magnificent. In between, moving the plot along, he occasionally faltered and did not appear to be in full command of the text and its tempo. This is a play, like many operas, which can be reduced to soliloquies and arias. Audiences have to be patient to wait for the highlights. Enough of them sells tickets.

Last night Simotes raised a toast to the cast and announced that company member Jonathan Epstein will directed Henry IV next season. The next two years will see Henry IV (2) and end with Henry V. Having already done Richard III, with John Douglas Thompson, it remains to be announced whether S&Co. will present the other tetralogy which also includes Henry VI (1, 2 and 3).

Over the next few years in the Berkshires S&Co. will be our theatrical  History Channel.

The King is dead. Long live The King.