Richard II, Every Inch a King
Michael Cumpsty is a strong, powerful looking man with a big voice, commendable features for an actor playing big roles,"Hamlet, Richard the Second, both for the Classic Stage Company. His handsome physical presence created an impressive image of Richard as a forceful king only reluctantly surrendering his crown after defeat in battle. Productions often enough play Richard as rather limp or febrile, suggesting that his defeat results at least in part from a weak willingness to lose. Rather, as the text indicates clearly enough, and as Cumpsty plays him, Richard is a charming man capable enough of his royal duties, but regrettably attracted by his own reflection, in the wording of one critic. This is the "shadow" that falls over his character.
To skip to a late episode momentarily, the "mirror scene" exemplifies this flaw at its most theatrical. Richard calls for a mirror to see if and how his sorrow in defeat has marked his
see if and how his sorrow in defeat has marked his face. (4.1.265ff). Bolingbroke mocks his play acting wish and reproves him drily: "the shadow of your sorrow has destroyed the shadow of your face. But Richard has revealed his pleasure in posing long before this, in the first scene of contest between Mowbray and Bolingbroke He interrupts them several times and quite enjoys his role as supreme judge: We were not born to sue but to command." Attraction to role playing is equally clear in his appreciation of Bolingbroke's rhetoric rather than his argument against the crown in that same scene. Richard observes Bolingbroke's command of the language with interest and perhaps wonder: How high a pitch his resolution soars.
Neither of these tendencies to self reflexiveness would have predicted his degradation and death. Richards tragedy instead hinges on two mistakes: he seizes Lancaster's lands, thus inviting reprisal; and he precipitously deposes himself. Apart from its possible illegality, and to provide an angle here on deposition other than histrionic, Richard's act creates a political power vacuum. He compels the court to reconsider his initial claim that the crown is divinely appointed: "Not all the water...can wash the balm of an anointed king." (3.2.55) though the court must address the results of Richard's action pragmatically and instantly. Perhaps Shakespeare leaves the idea of divine right ambiguous; it's a poetic figment consistent with Richard's conviction that god has an army in "heavenly pay" to defend him. He nonetheless loses the battle and then surrenders too much by offering to resign: "What must the king do now...Must he be deposed?
Richard stands on a gilded ladder at the beginning of the scene, (3.3) a perfect visual prop for the poetic imagery of his descent: "Down, down I come like glistering phaeton, a thrilling moment of drama that Cumpsty performed brilliantly-- the base court? Come down?" He speaks out of grief and "fondness" says Northumberland, commenting not only on the miserable king but on the larger action of rise and fall. When Richard arrives "below" in Bolingbroke's court, all genuflect to salute him as king, which provokes his instruction to Bolingbroke: "up cousin, up, Your heart is up I know. The more prosaic up and down of Richard's imaginary "buckets on a pulley, filling and emptying from the crown as a well, or filling with his tears, lead Bolingbroke to some irritability and impatience. I thought you had been willing to resign."(i.e., what are you going on about?) In fact, an emotional and broken Richard will create a greater drama out of his grand undoing (in 4.1) by reversing the litany of coronation: With mine own tears I wash away my balm...With mine own tongue...With mine own breath... Marvelous as the scene is, it represents a minor flaw in the dramaturgy since Shakespeare never prepared us for it; put the other way round, the deposition is not foreshadowed in Richard's character up to that point.
The actors speak the poetry beautifully in this production, a challenge since Shakespeare wrote this play entirely in verse. They did not try to naturalize the iambic pentameter by breaking the rhythm; they rather reminded us how naturally English falls into iambs. With this play, too, Shakespeare sees history made by the personal conflict of two characters, and particularly the problematic nature of the dukes' allegiance to the king. In the working out of this theme, the Duke of York's reluctance to side with Bolingbroke when he returns to England as Lancaster replays the historical issue, still sensitive in Shakespeare's lifetime.
The story of Queen Elizabeth's objection to the play usually cites her indignation at the staging (4.1) of Richard's deposition. She objected; it was excised; and performed without the scene. But the antagonism between Lancaster and York drove just as deeply into the audience's imagination. Many would have known Shakespeares earlier dramatizations, with the Henriad, of the hundred years of civil war instigated by Richard's banishment and abuse of Bolingbroke-Lancaster. And most in the audience knew from their schoolroom history of English Kings that Richard probably had ordered the murder of his powerful uncle Duke of Gloucester and that Mowbray had arranged it. No one accused Richard of this openly in court since he was god's deputy on earth. But no one registered surprise when he banished his henchman Mowbray. In a word, Shakespeare dramatizes the collapse of absolute monarchy on the levels of both character and political action. Could Queen Elizabeth NOT have noticed this?
The set for this production was inspired simplicity. The theater is a black box; a red carpet spread out center stage on blonde wood flooring, along with four, armless gilt chairs defined an elegant court. A photo blow up of a handsome head projected against the back wall vaguely resembled Paul Newman (well, sort of) more than any of the actors. Costumes offered telling details: Lancaster and Norfolk wore gloves, as would gentlemen warriors. The king wears beautiful shoes of patent leather and woven cloth. Doan Ly played a lovely Isabel in a simple gown, and Graham Winton made a healthy, strong Bolingbroke. The courtiers wore tails; they were jolly drunks at an opening party, singing "when you go out to the woods today you may get a fine surprise."
Richard in jail imagines for a touching moment the new King's triumphant march into London riding on Richard's horse Barbary. "Would he not stumble, Richard says ruefully; its the last of his possessions acquired by the new king. The production says, in effect,_not quite. Two henchmen come to court carrying bloody sacks with the heads of Richard's cohort. The authority for this, I take it, is free interpretation of text, in which Northumberland reports to Bolingbroke that various heads have been sent to London to substantiate report of their defeats. Bolingbrokes response, I thank thee gentle Percy won a laugh after all this gore. Then Exton and bearers" bring a huge coffin holding Richard's corpse to the new King, who "thanks them not....Though I did wish him dead/I hate the murderer." With this ending Shakespeare balances the play's opening when Richard dealt with his Exton, that is, Mowbray. But the moment is quite formal, its point nearly unnoticeable.
Richard II by William Shakespeare. Directed by Brian Kulick for The Classic Stage Company. Set: Tom Gleeson; Costume: Ona Botez-Ban. With Craig Baldwin (Mowbray); Michael Cumpsty (Richard); Bernardo De Paula (Bushy); Jon Devries (John of Gaunt); David Greenspan (Bagot); Doan Ly (Queen Isabel); Graham Winton (Bolingbroke); Craig Baldwin (Mowbray); others.