We Love Arts: Richard II


Michael Hayden as King Richard II in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of Richard II, directed by Michael Kahn. Photo by Scott Suchman.

I don’t normally write the kind of review that I’m writing today. But to be blunt, I’ve had enough. What is going on at Shakespeare Theatre Company? Inconsistent vocality, acting styles ranging all over from natural to downright hammy, condescending directorial choices, flubbed lines. With so much talent at its disposal, I can only attribute it to growing pains with the Harman Center. But even that excuse is not going to last much longer with me. I love theater and I love Shakespeare. I want everyone to succeed. But if you don’t start bringing it, STC, I’m going to lose faith.

My first hint something was not right with Richard II, now playing in repertory with Henry V as part of an exploration on leadership themes, was in reading Michael Kahn’s directorial notes. He had decided to add a prologue from an anonymously penned Elizabethean play called Thomas of Woodstock because “I’ve always been aware of how mystified the audience is for the first four scenes.” Um, what? The audience has to piece together what happens at the first scene of Hamlet too, but I don’t see anyone advocating giving the ghost’s secret away right off the bat. So this is a choice to enlighten the audience? Why, we’re too dumb to catch up on our own? The patched together prologue is interminable and unnecessary, giving us our first glimpse of Richard’s neurosis and paranoia far too soon, not to mention solidifying in my mind -

Ok, deep breaths. Let’s jump back for a minute.

Richard II is a play about power and authority at a time when the divine right of kings was still a common belief. People in Shakespeare’s time could still remember civil wars fought for kingship, and harkening back to an earlier era of strife made the topic a little safer to explore. Richard, once a boy king whose bloom is now fading, is an arrogant man but a lion nonetheless. His vanity blinds him to the dangers surrounding him, namely his seemingly straightforward cousin Henry Bolingbroke, who starts out as a macho hothead but is really more Machiavellian than anyone else. Ghosts of the great past king Edward flicker in Richard’s uncles, whose advice he ignores to the loss of his kingdom.

It’s a sad meditation on the follies of glory. Which I find a little ironic, given the folly on display here.


Charles Borland as Henry Bolingbroke and Michael Hayden as King Richard II in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of Richard II, directed by Michael Kahn. Photo by Scott Suchman.

There are missed opportunities all over the place, and I can’t fault the actors for the missteps. These are truly talented professionals not being served well by their director, and especially not by their vocal coaches. I haven’t winced so much at bad verse-speaking since… well, let’s just say it went into William Shatner-land. When two of the most beautiful monologues in the canon are ruined by actors of this caliber, that’s a bad sign. Again, what is going on? Great Edward’s brothers, uncles to Richard, are played like whiny old women. Yes, the characters are past their prime but there’s no excuse for that kind of lazy choice.

The true tragedy here is that there’s no transition for Richard from lion to rose. Instead he starts out as a high neurotic and therefore has no place to go. I spent most of the night feeling sorry for Michael Hayden in the title role, obviously a notable actor of great sensitivity. But by the time he smashes the mirror in one of the great Shakespearean moments of self-revelation, we hardly care that he’s broken – because he’s been broken all along. He’s been pushed out with no character arc, no journey to take. Hints of what could’ve been gleam in his scenes with Ted van Griethuysen as the Duke of York – in a few short strokes these two create a powerful and tender history between uncle and nephew that made me long for more such realized moments.

Surprisingly, Charles Borland’s Henry Bolingbroke actually has a journey, from eager warrior to uneasy king. His very subtle and natural performance was easily the highlight of the production for me. And my god, when Naomi Jacobson entered with a strong clear voice and a firm grasp of humor as the Duchess of York, the audience’s relief to see her was intense, released in almost nervous laughter.

What else is good? Well, the plot and family relationships are clearly rendered and easy to follow, which is definitely an accomplishment with such a complex history. The set design by Lee Savage is gorgeously simple, a golden throne rightly the focal point. But the less said about an anachronistic wheelchair, the better.

I’m seeing Henry V on Saturday and I don’t want to see this same kind of production. I want to be proven wrong. Please, STC, prove me wrong.

Richard II
Now thru April 10, 2010
Shakespeare Theatre Company at Sidney Harman Hall
610 F Street NW
Washington, DC 20004

As one of the founding editors of We Love DC, Jenn’s passions are theater and cocktails. After two decades in the city, she’s loved every quirky, mundane, elegant, rude minute of her DC life. A proud advocate for DC’s talented drinks scene, she’s judged the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s ARTINI contest, the DC Rickey Month contest, the Jefferson Hotel’s Quill Cocktail competition, and is a founding member of LUPEC DC. A graduate of Catholic University’s drama program, she toured the country as a member of National Players, and has been both an actor and a costume designer before jumping the aisle to theater criticism. Writing for We Love DC restored her happiness after a life-threatening illness, and she’s grateful to you, dear readers. Send your suggestions to jenn (at) welovedc (dot) com and follow her on Twitter.

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23 thoughts on “We Love Arts: Richard II

  1. Sounds like STC is edging ever closer to the crash and burn point it has been heading toward for a while now. It could do with a major artistic shake-up/housecleaning and the installation of a firm hand at the tiller to get the self-indulgent directors and florid producers under control. At the moment it lacks any sort of unified vision or mission. It’s a bit like a train wreck spread over a dozen different tracks. I’m going to see this play Tues. and right now I’m really glad I only paid half-price for it.

  2. That’s awesome, Rebecca. Because I actually absolutely adore Shatner and OTT (over-the-top) acting.

    Intentional OTT, that is. OTT that says “I don’t give a damn.” Not OTT that says “I’m drowning.”

    Kevin, I’d love it if you’d report back and let me know what you think after seeing it Tuesday. Maybe they will have warmed up… I always have hope.

  3. I find it hard to believe that you saw the same play that I did. Michael Hayden’s performance is spectacular and the supporting cast was strong. The weak point was Borland’s Bolingbroke. This is Shakespeare as it should be performed.

    Hayden’s Richard starts as a highly neurotic and pretentious so that he can transition to a broken human being. That is what is prescribed by the text – not the other way around.

    I’ll agree with you that STC’s last two shows were pieces of crap, but you’re dead wrong here.

  4. Michael F, you think that’s Shakespeare as it should be performed?

    See Derek Jacobi’s still definitive performance as R2. That’s the real journey from vain arrogance to soulful human, not to mention, a lesson in speaking verse without going into over indulgence.

    But, it’s ok to disagree here, nature of live performance.

  5. I’m with Michael – not sure what show you saw, Jenn.

    I thought the prologue gave us a nice intro to the story. It reads as though you were so offended by the program notes that you couldn’t just watch it for its own sake. Even if the script didn’t “need” it, I am glad Michael added it. Ted, Philip, and Floyd in that scene provided a strong opening.

    “Great Edward’s brothers, uncles to Richard, are played like whiny old women.” Huh? I totally disagree. Philip Goodwin’s first moments were what acting should be. He had great depth and subtext. Floyd King was excellent in a role that reminds us he can be just as great in non-comedic roles.

    I do agree that Naomi Jacobson, Ted van Griethuysen, and Tom Story were a highlight of Act Two. Other than that, it seems we are on different pages. The austerity of the production was wonderful: no big concept or over the top production values. Sometimes Shakespeare can just be Shakespeare.

    Not sure when press night happened, but there were few line flubs when we saw it. They were all handled well and were forgivable – there was nothing egregious (no “To be or not to… um, line?”). Those actors are doing 2 shows in rep and have basically been running a marathon for a couple of months. Was it a perfect show? No (few are), but it was far from the train wreck you described.

  6. But Kateddc – why add the prologue at all? You say later that “sometimes Shakespeare can just be Shakespeare” and I completely agree with you. The prologue is not Shakespeare and it shows – the language is not nearly up to the caliber of the rest of the play. I still argue it’s not needed.

    Sadly yes, we disagree on Goodwin and King. I thought Goodwin, a great actor, completely lost the beauty of the “This England” monologue. King in the prologue was just not compelling to me.

    Of course a few flubbed lines are forgivable. But actually corpsing signifies a lack of focus and that may highlight the difficulty in adapting to a repertory rotation. I rarely saw that watching seasons at the RSC. Everything I list in my first paragraph is referring to the overall trend I’ve seen at STC in general, not just this play. We do agree (and I think most would) that the production values are always top-notch. But I still would argue that the “pre-eminent” Shakespeare company in this country is showing signs of growing pains and inconsistency.

    (and btw, no matter how many people agree or disagree with me, I’m happy that there’s some passionate dialogue going on about theater)

  7. And here’s an alternate view by Tim Treanor at DC Theatre Scene probably more to Michael and Kate’s liking (though Tim and I agree strongly on Charles Borland nailing a great portrayal of Bolingbroke!)… Tim’s point that Kahn and Hayden choose to make R2 unsympathetic throughout made me mull that over more. But I’m still not changing my mind overall!!


  8. Jenn, I’m looking forward to what you thought of Henry V. Thanks to the snow my tickets got reversed, so I’ve seen Henry but not Richard. I really enjoyed HV – I think it’s the best STC show I’ve seen in a couple of years.

    I agree with you about STC in general lately. It feels like they are trying too hard to be “edgy” and “original” with their adaptations. The comedies are the worst offenders – I was really psyched for As You Like It, which I had never seen, but the way it was staged was more of a distraction than an enhancement. Reading the notes in the program, it’s often clear that the theater feels that it needs to do something unexpected for the well-known plays. It’s assuming that its patrons have seen everything multiple times and want something different.

    STC seems to stick with more traditional stagings for the histories, and personally I much prefer that as it allows me to focus on the language rather than trying to figure out what the staging says about the themes. As I said, I really enjoyed HV and I’m curious whether I will agree with you on R2!

  9. Molly, thanks for your thoughtful comment. Please let me know what you think when you see R2, I really welcome the dialogue here and I hope that comes across! :)

    I saw Henry V last night… and surprise! I loved it. Review up Tuesday.

  10. Henry V was superb. A very straightforward, no nonsense production, that also manages to be quite disturbing at the end. I have to agree Richard II was a miss but I don’t think it’s purely the director’s fault. Richard II is a tough role to make an audience care about. His journey to a personal revelation of the futility of power is a passive one, or at least a passive-aggressive one. Mark Rylance’s clown-king Richard was a brilliant solution to the role’s problems… you can see bits of it on YouTube.

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  12. I saw this during Snowmageddon and did really enjoy it. I’m by no means a Shakespeare buff and consistently end up at A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Romeo and Juliet whenever I see Shakespeare. That said, I thought it was an interesting directorial choice for Richard II to go from pompous adolescent (clearly older but seemed to be stuck in that developmental stage) to completely crazy. The only moment I felt any real sympathy for RII was when they were taking away his wife. Otherwise, he seemed simply nuts at the end–and while Michael Hayden nailed crazy ex-king (and pompous adolescent), I can’t say I felt a lot of love for RII as a result. I actually mostly felt like I understood Zimbabwe’s Mugabe better (don’t like him much, either).

    I also felt like there’s something of an affirmative action program for male actors. While the male leads were superb (and I’m with Jenn–LOVED Bolingbroke), many of the smaller male parts just weren’t played that spectacularly to me. They felt… uninspired, particularly RII’s three young buddies. I was so impressed by the actresses in their small parts and did not feel like the men in similarly minor rolls performed as well. If Shakespeare used to cast everything with only men, what would it look like to cast this with only women? I know some theaters choose to do it as an “innovative” way to look at Shakespeare, but given the gender ratio in the industry, maybe it’s time to do it out of sheer pragmatism.

  13. After seeing this last night I can now confirm that it is indeed a lackluster production. Moreover, it wasn’t Lord Ross who killed Richard II, it was Michael Kahn. The production was stilted, flat and disjointed. I disagreed with the decision to portray Richard as a callow fop rather than as a petty, paranoid, thin-skinned tyrant jealous of privilege and with a dogmatic belief in his divine right of kingship. Also, I can’t forgive Kahn’s decision to butcher John of Guant’s “sceptred isle” speech by having the actor rush through it with a deadpan delivery. It’s as though he intentionally set out to sabotage the play.

    And the Post’s gushing review this morning is mindboggling. The Frankenteinian bastardization of the play’s text with other source material is a brilliant idea? Seriously? Good grief.

  14. Jack, why would I have missed Eric’s link? Uncertain what you mean, but thank you for posting Celia Wren’s double review again. Perhaps you missed my earlier posting of Tim Treanor’s opposing review as well. He disagrees with me, but I respect his view just the same.

    We all saw the same play, indeed, but we have opposing views. I would never suggest anyone “brush up” simply because they disagree with me, or suggest they didn’t see the same show (which is as we all know akin to saying “you don’t know shit”) however seriously tempting that may be… I’d rather we had a dialogue, because hopefully we all have the same goal – to make DC theater the best it can be.

    Kevin, thanks for the follow-up. We agree this time – maybe next time we won’t – but I know we would disagree cordially. ;)

    And finally, I find it fascinating that all the vitriol is on the negative review of Richard, whereas there’s little feedback on the positive review of Henry. Is that because it’s easier to shout “you’re wrong!” than “you’re right!” ?

  15. Oh and “Jack,” I’ve been an EA myself, so I understand your loyalty and I’m sure your boss appreciates it. I certainly appreciate everything your boss has done for DC theater, notwithstanding my not liking this production.

    But next time you disagree with me on a STC review, please reveal that you work for them.

  16. I completely understand that everyone disagrees one minute and are on the same page the next but I stand by what I said: There are a lot of things crafted in this Richard II that were chosen for a specific reason to create the show currently being presented. I’m also speaking on behalf of myself and not as an employee so please don’t think that my loyalties to this company drive the comments I make.

    I fully respect you not enjoying the production but what I disagreed with was your assessment of its flaws. I am more than familiar with opposing viewpoints, but I find it hard to believe that you can say the things you do with such conviction to the negative when so many others are saying the opposite. I am also speaking from a non-Billy Shakes connoisseur perspective so I concede to the possibility that I’m missing something.

    But hey, can’t win/like them all! I am glad that you did enjoy Henry and I’m very excited about the season to come and hope you are too! You seem like a reasonable, educated person; it’d be great to grab a drink with you and talk about theatre or blogging or whatever!

  17. Jenn – I loved your review and your passion. While I agree that the prologue from the apocryphal play was interminable I did think it was illuminating. This is a brilliant play and Michael Kahn is a God but this production was not representative of either good Shakespeare production or a good Michael Kahn production. Vocally most actors were very weak – I totally agree, and if anyone knows Shakespeare its Mr. Kahn so I don’t know what happened. There were so many uninspired choices and missed opportunities that I felt deflated by the end of the first ACT and it wasn’t because of Richard’s impending doom. This is a tough literary play and I empathize with the company for the difficulties it poses, but I was underwhelmed. I would see it again though – several times – thats how much of a Shakespeare and Michael Kahn buff I am! Not all creations of a brilliant artist can be winners and this was proof. The beautiful speeches, and this play has several, were just thrown away like the actor was reciting with no interest or connection to the text. I was saddened and disturbed. Still was a treat to see all these great actors on stage – van Greithuysen, King, Goodwin, and some of the supporting actors – even though they did not bring their A game. Even the set design was a missed opportunity for me … I still feel VERY fortunate to live in DC – and breathe the same air as Michael Kahn and to be able to go to the Harman and The Shakespeare and to see world class productions. They do need a break though – even the RSC is not uniformly good – is the nature of the beast, the artistic process – sometimes the production comes together and sometimes it misses. You would still be a fool to miss it. Like I said if I could – I would go back and see it several times. Go Jenn and Go Shakespeare Theatre!

  18. Thanks, Jenn. My opinion is vindicated on Richard II which I saw yesterday afternoon. I’m not usually bored by Shakespeare, but I agree that the first few interpolated scenes were a real drag and the strange unevenness of the acting very disappointing. And the glorious poetry I recall from Derek Jacobi’s take on the good king in the BBC production years ago was almost totally lacking. Ah well, I have great hopes for Henry V. Thanks for a good review.

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