K. Grease took the heir to the Mungowitz fortune to see Playmakers' production of Richard II. Did a review for WUNC's TSOT. Here is the text.
In October 2000, Richard II might have been just a curiousity, worth only a frivolous review. I might then have assigned moral qualities to the characters, made the 2000 version allegorical. Or maybe Georgebushical; I might have had Bolinbroke say “New-cue-ler”.
In 2004, I don’t think anyone will say the play is frivolous. Richard II is not about politics; its subject is leadership. Tragedy, in its Aristotelian sense, is the fall of a highly renowned man or woman, someone admirable, who falls from a position of great esteem to a position of utter disgrace as a result of a tragic flaw.
Richard II is a tragedy, then, only if we can admire Richard himself. Chandler Williams, as Richard, gives a remarkable, mannered performance, twisting into fury and shame and delight, dominating the stage and then shrinking all of space around himself like a shroud. His embodiment of kingship at the beginning is nearly perfect. His movements are languid, unhurried and sure. He is an island of easy repose in the face of the fury of Bolinbroke and Mowbray’s quarrel.
By the end, when Richard is opened for our inspection, all the certainty is gone. We pity him. We may come to feel we understand him. But there is little to admire in Richard. Yet tragedy this is.
The tragic blight here is on humanity itself. The play raises questions about civil life, and leadership. We hope that great challenges embiggen our kings…our presidents. In Richard II…no. No leader is big enough to face the challenges he is presented with. The choices are epic, but the choosers are puny and flawed.
Your reviewer is tempted to shoe-horn current events of our day into the plot of the play. We see, after all, a ruinous foreign war, disastrous tax policies, and truly polarized politics, with strutting men flinging their gauntlets of honor, doing battle over tiny slights, real or imagined.
But that would misunderstand the message. Not in policies, but in people, should we see reflections of Richard II. When George Bush had that, “How dare you? I’m the President!” look in the first debate. When John Kerry becomes angry at reporters, sure that they are out to skewer him, or ruin him, traitors all to his cause. I can easily imagine Richard II windsurfing for hours.
And who among you have not felt the pain of John of Gaunt? The lines of his soliloquy are often quoted out of context, and robbed of their meaning. Listen, as an American in 2004, to his rage:
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,… Fear'd by their breed and famous by their birth,Renowned for their deeds as far from home,For Christian service and true chivalry,… Dear for her reputation through the world,Is now leased out, I die pronouncing it,Like to a tenement or pelting farm:… That England, that was wont to conquer others,Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.
Though I have seen the play before, I was moved here to tears. It was partly by Kenneth Strong’s powerful performance as Gaunt. But it was more that I heard, or understood, Gaunt’s speech for the first time. I recognized America. Our leaders fall tragically short of what the people need, of what the nation, in its greatness, deserves.
Richard II has been called “the most subtle piece of psychological analysis” in all the history plays. (The Meaning of Shakespeare, vol. 1 [University of Chicago Press, 1965], 148). It is unsettling to see wretched Richard laid bare, stripped of his conceit. But the real laying bare happens when we confront leaders not as we imagine them, but as they are. We endow our kings with a sense of majesty, imbue them with infallibility, and then we scorn their hubris. We, the people, have met the tragedy, and it is us.
Go…see Richard II at Playmakers. Take your children. Take their high school classmates. And then go, and sit upon the ground, and tell sad stories of the dearth of leadership.