King Richard II ruled England for 22 years. But Shakespeare’s play about him dwells mainly on the last year of his reign — when he was jailed and forced from the throne by those close to him, including his usurping cousin Henry Bolingbroke (who became King Henry IV).
History has been somewhat kinder to this deposed 14th-century monarch than Shakespeare was in his tragedy “Richard II,” which is not often mounted here. It is receiving an engrossing, solid production now from Seattle Shakespeare Company.
Though historians acknowledge his authoritarian streak and love of royal splendor, Richard apparently had other leadership qualities worthy of admiration (physical courage, a desire for peacemaking with foreign enemies) that are not evident in the Bard’s version of his undoing.
There also is some disagreement on whether his rasher actions, including the banishing of two popular and powerful courtiers, really set in motion Britain’s string of dynastic civil wars — the subject of Shakespeare’s great “War of the Roses” play cycle.
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But what makes “Richard II” profound is not historical accuracy,. It is its exploration of the existential crisis that ensues when one’s public identity and private self-image are utterly shattered.
This is keenly captured in such moments as when the deposed Richard stares into a mirror and sees a face that does not yet reflect his dilemma. (“No deeper wrinkles yet?/Hath sorrow struck/So many blows upon this face of mine/And made no deeper wounds?”)
Shakespeare uses Richard’s downfall to explore the devastating loss of self — which here strips a lofty sovereign of all worldly trappings, forcing him for the first time to gaze inward at his essential humanity.
That reckoning is expressed in some of Shakespeare’s most lyrical and psychologically insightful verse. Languishing in prison, Richard muses, “How sour sweet music is when time is broke and no proportion kept!/ So is it in the music of men’s lives./ I wasted time and now doth time waste me.”
Directed crisply by Rosa Joshi, and performed in cogent and muscular fashion by a cast led by George Mount as the tragic king, Seattle Shakes’ “Richard II” doesn’t bother much with pomp and circumstance, and it is virtually concept-free.
Carol Wolfe Clay’s uncluttered unit set consists of a burnished floor, with tracklike framing up above and a mobile throne that rises and falls as needed. Jocelyne Fowler’s costumes are in period, but not fussily so.
That leaves little distraction from the smooth-flowing mechanics of overconfident power, rising resentment and rigorous treachery, and from the text’s wealth of dazzling verse.
The famous patriotic speech by John of Gaunt, Richard’s sagacious uncle and father of the exiled Bolingbroke, is beautifully intoned by a dignified, heartbroken Dan Kremer. (“This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.”)
Brenda Joyner, as Richard’s devoted queen, exclaims with ringing alarm and grief, upon spotting her diminished spouse being roughly led to his final cell, “Look up, behold/ That you in pity may dissolve to dew/ And wash him fresh again with truelove tears.”
And the grandest verbal jewel in Richard’s hollow crown is a famous soliloquy in which he comprehends his own mortality, and that of every person, royal or common, before him.
It begins: “For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground/ And tell sad stories of the death of kings.” And Mount speaks it wrenchingly, as an agonized yet emancipating epiphany by a man realizing at last that he’s no more or less of a human being than his fawning subjects: “I live with bread like you, feel want/ Taste grief, need friends …”
As Richard is brought low and haggard, accumulating wisdom as he loses rank and ultimately his life, Mount’s performance cannily gains power and pungency. A more delineated account of the martinet Richard before his tumble would make a more complete portrait.
But overall, the acting is, on its own terms, impeccable — with impressive work too from excellent David Foubert as Bolingbroke, Peter A. Jacobs as the Duke of York and Kate Wisniewski as the “unruly” Duchess of York.
Misha Berson: email@example.com