“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”
King Richard II didn’t say that, but his successor Henry IV did. Politics is and ever was a tough business, even back in the 14th century. Perhaps if he’d realized what he was in for, Henry Bolingbroke wouldn’t have plotted to usurp the throne from his cousin Richard II.
Shakespeare’s “King Richard II” covers the last two years of that king’s reign and the plot that brought Bolingbroke to the throne.
This story about sovereignty contrasts Richard’s ineptitude at governing (but his conviction of the correctness of the divine right of kings) with his more populist cousin Bolingbroke, who thought bloodlines less important than intellect and savvy politicking.
Richard was the dignified royal addicted to the pomp and ceremony of power. His is a lofty turn of phrase; he is introspective and more interested in the trappings of power than the exercise of it.
Thus he is easily “basely led by flatterers.” But it should be remembered that Richard became king at the age of 10 and died in prison at 33.
Henry the populist, by contrast, is scrappier, a doer rather than a thinker who speaks more directly, especially when he seeks backing to depose the king.
The Old Globe Theatre opens its summer season with a fine production of the seldom-performed “King Richard II,” directed by the award-winning Erica Schmidt.
Robert Sean Leonard (who won a Tony for “The Invention of Love” in 2001) plays the ill-suited and ill-fated Richard, who demonstrates his ineptitude for leadership right off when he first calls for combat between squabbling royals Mowbray (Ian Lassiter) and Bolingbroke (Tory Kittles) and then calls it off before swords are crossed.
Scenic designer John Lee Beatty’s imposing (but seemingly disintegrating) tri-level set allows the king the appearance of importance when we first see him at the top, on his throne with a huge rolling two-level staircase in front of him. (It’s also impressive that he walks down that steep staircase with no apparent discomfort.) The palace, once gold (or at least gilt), is now blackened from time and inattention.
But it’s Richard’s inattention to his realm that leads to his downfall, and Leonard well portrays the slow evolution toward awareness that will eventually show him why his cousin Henry is unwilling to cut him any slack.
Kittles plays Bolingbroke with more brashness than his cousin and the cunning of an Iago. It’s not difficult to see how he could take Richard down.
Also notable: Charles Janasz (who has performed in many an Old Globe Shakespeare Festival) as Sir John Gaunt, Bolingbroke’s father, who woefully observes that “This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England....Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.”
And Patrick Kerr injects some much-needed humor as the Duke of York, who is just plain exasperated at the goings-on.
Ms. Schmidt has made one plot change: two murderers are sent to kill Richard in prison, but the Duke of York’s son Aumerle (Jake Horowitz) is the one to stab him here. Shakespeare used another character who was cut from this production.
Sten Severson contributes a fine, eerie sound design, in particular, a lone high soprano voice lending pathos to this sad story. Stephen Strawbridge’s lighting and Andrea Lauer’s costumes also add depth.
“King Richard II” could be taken as a sad cautionary tale of a country in danger or just another story of power and those who want it. Either way, it’s good to see this rarely-performed work, which has the further distinction of being Shakespeare’s only play written entirely in verse.
“King Richard II” plays through July 15, 2017 at The Old Globe’s Lowell Davies Festival Theatre in Balboa Park.
Tuesday through Sunday at 8 pm. (No performance July 4; additional performance at 8 pm July 3.)
Tickets: (619) 234-5623 or theoldglobe.org