If you accept divine right of kings, then loyalty should be absolute. Betraying the king would be tantamount to betraying God. But then there are the tricky realities of governance. Is the king still divine if he cannot rule? And if you usurp that king, are you acting for or against God?
These issues get full hearing in King Richard II, during which betrayal is almost as common as free verse. At one point, Richard wears a crown with an actual halo.
The play opens with a body onstage, the Duke of Gloucester’s. Henry Bolingbroke (Tory Kittles) accuses Thomas Mowbray (Ian Lassiter) of being complicit in the killing – though it’s clear that Richard (Robert Sean Leonard) is ultimately at fault. Words are exchanged, gauntlets fly.
The king must adjudicate this disagreement but is ill-suited to the task. His own guilty knowledge, and seeming lack of focus, complicate the task. He exiles both men, an edict that sets the story in motion.
Leonard’s depiction of Richard is a joy to watch. As a man elevated by God, he is far superior to the minions surrounding him. He seems amused by their human foibles, and acts like a man who thinks he gets the joke while others scratch their heads. As the play proceeds, he actually does get the joke, which is not a good moment for him.
While Richard brings a jocular arrogance, Kittles’ Bolingbroke is severe in his seriousness. When he and Mowbray are banished, he immediately sees the implications, which the king apparently does not. That Richard and Bolingbroke are first cousins only complicates matters. In fact, virtually everyone in Richard II is related to everyone else, itself an odd commentary on English royalty.
Charles Janasz is characteristically excellent as the Duke of Lancaster, Bolingbroke’s father, who takes his son’s banishment especially hard. But it’s Patrick Kerr as the Duke of York who often owns the show. For all the reasons cited above, as well as Richard’s general incompetence, York is intensely conflicted. It’s his loyalty that will ultimately prop or doom Richard’s reign. Kerr plays it with a world-weary reluctance: nothing I do will set this situation right.
Like other Shakespearean histories, the cast is massive, and it does require a bit of concentration to sort through who is doing what. The Globe kindly provides a family tree (thanks Globe).
With its wall of doors, the set adds an extra dimension to the storytelling, particularly with Richard looking down on his subjects and occasionally having to sink to their level. Schmidt’s pacing is excellent and she finds humor even in this stark play.
But the highlight is Leonard, whose Richard seems more narrator than character, amused by all the sound and fury and knowing it won’t ever impact him – until it does.