Is what we do, ultimately, who we are? If not, who or what are we? Though he lived long before Existentialism, William Shakespeare addresses this perennially thorny philosophical question over and over. Though he did his work in an era when the divine right of kings was a concept still taken seriously, he repeatedly tests his rulers by putting them in situations where power is taken from them. Sometimes, like Duke Senior exiled to the Forest of Arden or Prospero to his wild island, they make the best of their situations and strengthen their native talents. King Lear does not handle his fall from entitlement nearly so well.
Whatever fascination the question of whether or not certain people are born to lead might have exerted on the Bard had to be concealed to some degree, in order not to offend the members of the royal family who were the patrons of his troupe. This is especially true in the history plays that chronicle the exploits of Queen Elizabeth’s ancestors on both the York and the Lancaster sides. And yet Shakespeare was irresistibly drawn to the Wars of the Roses, with all their vivid characters and tumultuous reversals of fortune. Lacking free rein to depict either one side or the other as altogether heroic or villainous, the playwright was forced to delve deeper into human nature and moral choices. The reward for audiences today: storytelling that still breathes, is still meaningful – “not for an age, but for all time.”
The Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival has a long track record of sticking mainly to the comedies and the tragedies, typically mounting one of each every summer, along with a third non-Shakespeare play. Among the histories, Henry V and Richard III get an occasional airing, but not much else (HVSF regular Jason O’Connell should be ripe to give us an epic Falstaff in another 15 or 20 years). So it was a daring choice this summer for the troupe to opt to put on that unlovable stepchild, Richard II. Not that it’s bad drama, but plays that lack someone the audience can root for or hiss at tend not to have devoted followings. Unlike Henry IV, Richard II is also utterly devoid of comic relief, which the current production tries to ameliorate by injecting humor into the scene in which the Dutchess of York (Nance Williamson) begs Henry Bolingbroke to spare her son’s life; it doesn’t really work in context, for all Williamson’s formidable comedic gifts.
In portraying the initial conflict that sowed the seeds of generations of Lancaster/York warfare, Shakespeare had a particularly fine line to walk. Richard isn’t a very good king; he’s rather full of himself, overfond of taxation, alienating the commons, and too eager to confiscate the family wealth of aristocrats who offend him. But the playwright couldn’t go too far in sanctioning Bolingbroke’s open rebellion, either. That yields interesting drama by modern standards; we relish our grey characters nowadays. So maybe Richard II’s time for a revival of interest has come.
In keeping with the theme of 2018 being a season to examine the roles of women at HVSF, director Davis McCallum chose to cast a female actor, Julia Coffey, in the role of Richard. The unusual casting serves to highlight the play’s themes of identity: Who or what is a person born to be king, when kingship is taken away? What sort of personhood is left? In her first outing with HVSF, Coffey does an excellent job of swooping between the poles of contemptuous, self-assured autocrat with a whim of iron and despairing, abandoned, defeated shell of a self. Company stalwart Mark Bedard is consistently forceful, but less nuanced, in the role of Bolingbroke – up until near the end of the play, when it begins to dawn on the successful usurper that the crown will prove more burden than prize.
Another intriguing directorial choice was to conflate the role of Aumerle (Benjamin Bonenfant) – the son of the Duke of York (Kurt Rhoads), and cousin to both Richard and Bolingbroke – with that of Exton, the king’s eventual murderer. It further highlights the irony of both Aumerle and his father being among Richard’s diehard supporters at first, only to turn with the popular tide against him. Both performers are outstanding, with believably conflicted father/son chemistry. Somewhat less persuasive is the play’s famously patriotic “This England” monologue: normally delivered quietly from John of Gaunt’s deathbed, but here rendered as an oddly shouty rant by Triney Sandoval as he races around the stage.
One subtle piece of Shakespeare’s story that makes a particularly striking impression in this production is the developing warp and weft of curses and prognostications, foreboding an internecine war that will never seem to end, bringing woe and rue to both sides of the family. One may easily picture Gloriana herself taking in a command performance of Richard II, musing to herself that her squabbling antecedents really ought not to have gone down the particular paths they chose. For all we know, she may have made better choices as a ruler herself, in part due to the lessons of history as carefully distilled by her court dramatist.
All in all, HVSF’s 2018 production of Richard II is an admirably vigorous and thoughtful rendition of a difficult play that can sometimes yield little in the way of inspiring payoff. Additional performances will begin at 7:30 p.m. on August 16, 19, 22 and 26 in the magical theater tent on the grounds of Boscobel House and Gardens, with their stunning view of the Hudson Highlands, located at 1601 Route 9D in Garrison. Also being performed in repertory this summer are Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew and David Farr’s The Heart of Robin Hood. For tickets and more information, call the box office at (845) 265-9575 or visit https://hvshakespeare.org.