Sunday, July 2, 2017

Richard II by William Shakespeare (Old Globe San Diego)

I read Richard II for the first time about four years ago. You can read my thoughts here. Earlier this year, as part of our annual “check with our favorite theaters to see if they are doing anything interesting” we discovered that The Old Globe in San Diego would be doing Richard II - with notable actor Robert Sean Leonard in the title part.

The Old Globe is one of our favorite places, not least because San Diego is our most visited vacation destination - a place we love. (My wife and I visited together when she was pregnant with our first child - and we have been back at least once a year since. Between the food and the museums and the beaches, well, why not?) Of the theaters we frequent, The Old Globe is probably the priciest, in part because there is no student discount. On the other hand, it has high production quality, with mostly professional actors, and bigger budgets in general, so you get a lot for the money.

The other advantage is that The Old Globe tends to mix in the lesser known plays with the standards. Our first play there was Pericles, which neither my wife nor I had seen anywhere else. The production was imaginative and psychologically fascinating, and we decided to keep an eye on future productions. Last year, we saw Love’s Labour’s Lost, which was fantastic.

Richard II is not the easiest of Shakespeare’s plays. First, it is a history, which means he kind of had to use the facts of the story, and thus was limited in what he could do for dramatic effect. Second, Shakespeare elected to present the play entirely without comic relief - it is serious the whole way through. This may have been because this was one of the earlier histories, before he invented Falstaff, and because the story itself is tragic. In any case, it was a bit hard for my youngest to get into - although the older kids did pretty well.

I hit a number of the themes in my previous review, so I recommend reading that first.

This particular production was notable in a number of ways, and emphasized ideas that I had not necessarily focused on when I read it. Perhaps this was because of the choices of the director and actors - but it may also have been because world politics have taken a rather dark turn in the last year, so certain lines stood out as particularly relevant.

Let me first mention the set. It was stark to say the least. There was a wood floor to the stage, with grass growing between the planks. Basically, the earth of England and the hard wood of its roots. Behind was a gallery, similar to outside of the Roman coliseum, with doors under the arches that could open and close as desired. The props were minimal, and the play set in its proper time. It fit. I particularly loved the way that Richard, at key times in the play, must descend the steps from the upper level of the gallery, while the play gives him lines about descending - first in condescension to stop the duel, and later in painful humility as he surrenders his throne.

Robert Sean Leonard is best known to most of us for his portrayal of Dr. Wilson in the TV drama House. Or perhaps for his role in Dead Poets Society. But his bread and butter has been the stage, with a lengthy list of Broadway and off-Broadway credits to his name. He is a legit actor, not just a pretty face. 
 Robert Sean Leonard as Richard II

I have nothing but good things to say about his turn as Richard the Second. His diction was delightful: clear and emotive, with perfect pacing, never hurried. I felt the change in Richard from the smug and overconfident tyrant to the harried and fearful victim of revolution. The transformation also felt real. Richard is the same man, and his fatal flaws make him both arbitrary and unpredictable when he has power and unmanned when he does not. His self-awareness at the end comes at the cost of personal suffering. Leonard was given top billing, and with good reason. He owned the show, as he should, and brought complexity to a difficult role. The soliloquy about “the hollow crown” was simply fantastic - I was riveted the whole time.

That moral ambiguity is one of the things I love about Richard II. He is clearly a lousy king - not a terrible moral monster, but incompetent and petty. (In some ways, the parallel with a certain president is striking - Le Toupee is no Hitler, but he is a thin skinned bully - like Richard.) Bollingbroke (later Henry IV) isn’t really better, though. He picks a fake quarrel with Mobray, in part as a political gambit. He sucks up to the common people like the demagogue he is, and talks out of both sides of his mouth. Is he better than Richard? Maybe. Does he benefit the country by seizing the throne and having Richard murdered? Not necessarily. After all, the conflict over the throne would wage off and on before the War of the Roses finally ended with only Henry VII standing. That’s a solid 190 years of intermittent fighting and conflict over which branch of the royal line would prevail. So not a solid precedent to set by offing the king.

A few other actors stood out. Tory Kittles as Bollingbroke was solid, with a dignity that matched Shakespeare’s words. He’s a veteran screen actor as well. He seems genuinely troubled at what he feels he needs to do, and makes for another ambiguous and complex character. 

 Tory Kittles (Bolingbroke) and Robert Sean Leonard (Richard)

Nora Carroll brought a lot to the role of Queen Isabel, one of the few female roles in this play. She is a post-grad student at UCSD. 

Charles Janasz owned his scenes as John of Gaunt. His big soliloquy where he tells of the glories of England (“this sceptred isle…”) and bemoans what has happened to the once glorious country at the hands of a petty and arrogant ruler was outstanding. 

 Charles Janasz (seated) as John of Gaunt

Finally, I loved Patrick Kerr as the Duke of York, who has to try to hold England together while Richard is away at the wars, and whose age and conflicted loyalties make it an impossible task.

 Patrick Kerr as York

York conferring with Bolingbroke.
Anyway, the language in Richard II is amazing, the dark story one of Shakespeare’s most thoughtful explorations of power and ethics, and I am thrilled I got to see this outstanding production.


Let me once again plug my favorite Shakespeare references:

  1. Asimov’s Shakespeare by Isaac Asimov. If you want to know all the historical and literary references and what they mean, this is a great source. I don’t always agree with Asimov’s analysis, but it is always well informed and thoughtful.
  2. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human by Harold Bloom. Great insight into the characters. This is a more recent addition to my library, and I love it.
  3. The Shakespeare Lexicon and Quotation Dictionary published by Dover Publications. (2 volumes.) Outstanding source for the archaic words and for finding stuff you remember reading.


One of the best benefits of blogging is that you make connections with interesting people around the globe. One of those is David Sarkies from Australia, who is a fellow theater buff, museum aficionado, and thinker about the intersection of religion and politics. His posts are detailed and thoughtful, and I look forward to seeing them in my reading list. He wrote about Richard II last year.

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