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One of the stunning achievements of 16th-century drama, Shakespeare's Richard II is nevertheless seldom performed. The reason is simple: it is deucedly difficult to do well. I commend the American Shakespeare Festival for courageously choosing the work to open its eighth Stratford season. The result, though certainly not definitive, is to a large degree successful.
Richard II is the first instalment in Shakespeare's tetralogical study in the essence of the art of kingship. The play is not people with good guys and bad guys; it is a sober study in greys. Richard's downfall is, perhaps, not really tragic (for one thing, he enjoys it too much); but it is pathetic. The true tragedy is that almost all the characters, mixtures of good and bad, are by their circumstances prevented from making the most of their innate potentialities. They are the right people in the wrong place or the wrong time. or both.
From the point of view of structure, the play is remarkable. It is tight and economical. At the outset, we are plunged in medias res; and there are no scenes of comic relief. Everything bears directly on the main thread of the plot -- the interaction of the destinies of King Richard himself and of Bolingbroke who becomes Henry IV. We see Richard high on one end of a seesaw, and Bolingbroke on the other. And we sit mesmerized as we witness the inexorable and almost ritualistic shifts of the fulcrum from the force of incident or public opinion, until Bolingbroke finally rises to throne level. Superimposed on this is the further manic-depressive seesawing within Richard's own being.
But while the plotting is tautly controlled, Shakespeare at the same time gives himself completely free rein in diction, so that the characters indulge themselves in pouring out poetry at great length and turning an etat d'ame into a cosmic phenomenon. Like King John and two parts of Henry VI, Richard II has no prose; and it contains more rhymes than any plays in the canon except Love's Labour's Lost and Midsummer Night's Dream. As a whole, the play is vastly superior to, say, Romeo and Juliet, written at the same time.
The Festival's approach to Richard II is, fortunately, straight. Artistic director Jack Landau has departed; gone with him are the potato-chip and Venetian-blind settings, and the trick gimmicks. So we are spared a transplantation to Cuba with a Castro-Bolingbroke.
Eldon Elder has modified the stage somewhat, and designed the sets. The floor is unraked this year, with a cyclorama behind. A pair of staircases and platforms can be rolled on and off. And there is, at the proscenium, a tripartite portcullis that can be raised and lowered as a whole or in sections, and, when wanted, an opaque curtain just behind it to allow changes of set in back while scenes are played on the extended apron in front. Elder has also fashioned a series of suitable Gothic arches; and, in the garden scenes, even the flower trellises culminate in ogives.
The production was directed by Allen Fletcher, new to Stratford, but with experience in staging other Shakespeare festivals in the midwest and far west. Trimming the text to a running time of two hours and twenty minutes, he has kept the show moving, and for the most part carried out his end capably.
The character of Richard is the most baffling and complex one Shakespeare wrought before Hamlet. It scares most actors, though its very complexity ("Thus play I in one person many people, and none contented") offers extraordinary latitude of interpretation. The difficulty is to establish a unifying core beneath the many refractory and attitudinized moods on the surface.
Attempting the feat here is Richard Basehart, whose work has been mainly in the cinema. His is an honest, valiant effort; and much of Richard comes through, though a complete Richard eludes him. At the opening performance, he often spoke too softly, but I trust he has better guaged the acoustics of the theater by now. (And Fletcher might give thought to decreasing the number of lines spoken by others with back to the audience).
When the play opens at high pitch with a big confrontation scene between Bolingbroke and Mowbray, Basehart admirably conveys how ill-suited Richard is to be king: he slouches in his chair, popping grapes down his gullet and chatting with retainers, while paying scant attention to the dispute he is supposed to adjudicate.
He negotiates his "let us tell sad stories" speech affectingly on his knees, with both hands instinctively rising at "brass impregnable." When Bolingbroke later kneels to Richard, the latter says, "Up, cousin, up; your heart is up, I know, Thus high at least." Here 'Basehart properly clarifies the line by pointing to his crown on the word thus.'
Most actors play Richard as an invertebrate effeminate. There is not a hint of that in Basehart's portrayal. And this has the great virtue of making believable for once Richard's final scene, in which he disarms and slays two attackers before being felled by Exton. As he falls, Basehart manages to wrench the heart when he painfully recognizes his murderer and pronounces his name in surprised disbelief--a moment as touching as Caesar's "Et tu, Brute."
What is lacking in Basehart's performance is sufficient feeling for the glorious music of Richard's speech. From his first Wales scene to the end, the play is a cantata with Richard as soloist. Richard is above all a poet-musician; he prefers ears to spears, couplets to doublets, books to hooks, writing to fighting, rhyme to grime. Basehart does not sing well enough.
One who does sing well, though in a less operatic role, is Phillip Bosco as Bolingbroke. Bosco brings to the part intelligence, poise, and a visage full of character. He has a sonorous voice and knows how to use it, having played Shakespeare before (as Basehart has not). Only occasionally does he push his voice beyond its proper limit.
It is silly, though, for the director to have him twice say, "Have I no friend will rid me of this living fear?" only to have this quoted at once by Exton, to whom alone Shakespeare gave the words.
The high point of the text is the deposition scene. This portion so unnerved Queen Elizabeth I, who took it as a personal threat, that she had it censored; and the scene was not printed till James ascended the throne. The deposition is also the high point of this production. The attendants are well blocked, and Basehart and Bosco mesh wonderfully. Their pacing and their subtle give-and-take are just right. And Basehart times his "Ay, no; no, ay" to perfection. This is a moving spectacle indeed. There remains only for the prop department to come up with a better hand-mirror than an allwooden imitation; the best actor in the world could not dash it to the floor with the glass "crack'd in a hundred shivers."
Young Hal Holbrook, despite a dime-store beard, conveys the old age of John of Gaunt in both body and voice, though there is more to be had from his farewell speech, as grand a paean to England as ever was penned. As staged here, Gaunt walks slowly off stage in apparent good health; no sooner is the last of his gown out of sight in the wings when Northumberland (solidly played by Will Geer) bounds back into view to report Gaunt's death. Now Shakespeare is partly to blame, for he wrote only eight lines between Gaunt's last words and the announcement of his death. The director should handle this better, however; for example, by having Gaunt slump on stage while being escorted out, or by inventing some business to pad out the eight lines.
Richard Waring, with his exemplary diction and easy projection, turns the relatively minor role of the Bishop of Carlisle into a major contribution. Helped by inspired writing to be sure, his long denunciation of Bolingbroke is superb acting. There is something noble and thrilling about an individual in the right willing to oppose the mob in the wrong even though he may be scaling his own doom. Thus has it always been: Antigone, Saint Joan, Sir Thomas More, Dr. Thomas Stockmann, Martin Luther King. Carlisle is of their company. In the play's final scene, Bolingbroke sentences Carlisle to live as a perpetual anchorite. Yet when Bolingbroke in the end decides to make a voyage of penance to the Holy Land, Waring's Carlisle, in a splendid touch, has the grandness of soul to step forward and bless his banisher with the sign of the Cross.
I hesitate to take issue with so eminent a Shakespearean as Mark Van Doren, but his statement that the Duke of York "is the one clearly comic personage" in the play is woefully to misread the role. York is not comic; he is piteous. At any rate Patrick Hines brings to York not an interpretation, but a dozen interpretations. I have not the haziest idea what sort of codger Hines takes York to be. And someone should inform Hines that, in Shakespeare, the word 'issue' is not a sneeze.
James Valentine brings a youthful earnestness to the part of Hotspur. Hugh Feagin's Aumerle and Sada Thompson's Duchess of York are helpful. Of the other players, some are adequate, and some so affront the English language as should be banned from any stage whatsoever.
Charles Elson has taken care with his lighting, and Motley's costumes are always appropriate. A special word of praise must go to Conrad Susa for his incidental music. Harpsichord and woodwind gently back up the garden scenes, but most of the time the moods are skilfully underlined by tart wind and timpani. The music is modern, but occasionally incorporates such an authentic medieval device as the Landini cadence.
Two final picayune complaints: (1) What is the rationale in listing the big cast on the printed program specifically not in order of speaking? It is particularly difficult in Shakespeare's history plays to identify many of the sirs, lords, soldiers and whatnot, who often are not referred to by name in the script. A change in policy would be of service to the audience and to the players -- not to mention critics.
(2) At the entrance to the grounds there hangs an escutcheon on both sides of which is emblazoned: American Shakespeare Festival Theatre and Acadamy [sic]. There are more than a hundred acceptable ways to spell the Bard's name, but the road leading into his theatre is not even macadamy.
(A review of the Festival's production of Henry IV, Part One will appear on Thursday.--Ed.
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