Richard II At The Stratford Festival
For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings.
Before I get to Jillian Keiley’s and Brad Fraser’s Frankenstein monster of an adaptation – a “revolutionary” adaptation no less – of William Shakespeare’s Richard II, let me get something off my chest.
In 2016, The Festival mounted Breath of Kings (a title lifted from Richard II) a two part mash-up of four Shakespeare history plays – Richard II, Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, and Henry V – by Graham Abbey, who is a superb Benedick in this season’s Much Ado About Nothing.
In my memory, that misbegotten effort was notable for two things: squads of actresses making ludicrous attempts to portray soldiers (only Kate Hennig pulled it off) and an incandescent performance by Tom Rooney in the few scenes of Richard II that survived Abbey’s editorial scalpel.
I harbored a dream that the Festival would soon give Richard II the full production it deserved and Rooney the opportunity to offer an indelible rendition of the title character. Alas, it seems the Festival decided that Breath of Kings gave it a pass to ignore Shakespeare’s histories.
Now Tom Rooney and Kate Hennig are gracing the stages of the Shaw Festival and the Festival has turned over its magnificent new Tom Patterson Theatre to Keiley and Fraser, latter day Nahum Tates who are sure they can do the Bard one better.
Not since Max Bialystok mounted Springtime For Hitler has a playwright’s vision been so royally o’erthrown. The programme devotes about 80 percent of a page to a bio of Shakespeare and about 20 percent to Fraser. That should have been reversed. This is very much Fraser’s vision. Shakespeare has merely provided the shreds and patches from which Fraser has knitted together his travesty.
This Richard II is gay. Very gay. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Except perhaps that it wasn’t quite what Shakespeare had in mind.
There is scant historical evidence that the real Richard II was gay; what exists came from his enemies whose testimony is as reliable as, oh I don’t know, Donald Trump’s.
There are some hints in the text that Richard II might be a bit fey. The strait-laced Duke of York complains that Richard listens to the “venom sound” of “lascivious meters” and pays attention to “report of fashions from proud Italy.”
This isn’t the first production to pick up on these faint dog whistles. I saw Alex Jennings turn in a gay-ish Richard II at the RSC in 1990. It didn’t quite work. And turning the gay up to eleven doesn’t make it work any better.
Keiley and Fraser have created a Richard II who is a homophobe’s nightmare vision of what every gay man is like. (Now that I think of it, I hope Ron DeSantis comes to see this show because it would kill him.)
Of course, there’s nothing to say that Richard II, either in real life or in the play, might not have had it off with the odd courtier. As anyone who has logged any time in a British boarding school knows, the English are prone to this sort of thing. But that’s decidedly beside the point.
Shakespeare was giving us a portrait of a weak and flawed monarch, as Mark Rylance’s superb portrayal in an all-male, original practices production at London’s Globe Theatre in 2003, demonstrated so beautifully. That, for me, remains the definitive Richard II. Rooney might have matched it.
Richard II is also packed with some glorious poetry. There isn’t a single line of prose in the whole thing. Indeed, Richard is as much poet as king. As he descends into rococo self pity towards the play’s end, he begins to anticipate the metaphysical poetry of John Donne. In fact, there is some scholarly debate about who influenced whom in this regard.
Fraser and Keiley care not a whit for any of this nonsense. They have very different fish to fry. For starters, Fraser has simply thrown out long stretches of text. Most egregiously, he has cut one of the most iconic speeches in the entire canon, Gaunt’s jingoistic paean to “this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.”
Why slog through a few pages of Shakespeare when you can watch big sweaty mens, stripped to the waist and smeared with oil, engage in a vague approximation of mixed martial arts?
And why not set the scene, nonsensically, in 70s and 80s New York at the height of gay liberation and the disco craze so you can put on lengthy and laughable renditions of unbridled depravity in the baths and on the disco floor?
Speaking as someone who was <ahem> active in New York during that period, I can assure you that in those bad old days the nudity would have been total, full frontal, dorsal, and rectal, and there wouldn’t have been an “intimacy coach” in sight. Keiley’s recreation comes across as just plain dumb.
Fraser wasn’t content simply to cut. He has added bits and pieces of King Lear and even the sonnets to cobble together a subplot, presumably about AIDS, involving the minor character of Willoughby (nicely played by Charlie Gallant), which doesn’t exist in Shakespeare’s original.
Aumerle (an impressive Emilio Vieira against all odds) has been promoted to a major character and made both Richard’s lover and his murderer.
For her part, Keiley has a penchant for the heavy-handed metaphor. In a programme note she cites the Wilton Diptych, Richard II’s personal altar piece, as the inspiration for her production. And so we are treated an ensemble of fifteen angels, with wings no less, who disco dance through most of the proceedings, rearranging set pieces and props and occasionally drawing focus and blocking sight lines.
All of this to what end? A good question and I’m not sure that either Keiley or Fraser make it clear what the answer should be.
A celebration of the exhilarating freedom that ensues when gay men release themselves to unrestrained sexual abandon? If so, who would want a gay king, or prime minister, or president?
In a programme note, Sean Carney, a professor of drama and theatre, tells us that Fraser has “transform[ed] the tragedy into a parable for the AIDS crisis.” I don’t believe that for a second, but if that was the intent, the moral of the parable seems to be “They brought it on themselves; serves ’em right!”
This is especially distressing because this season the Festival has mounted two plays that actually do address the human tragedy of the AIDS plague in a profoundly moving way. Neither of them were granted the prominence they deserved.
Nick Green’s superb Casey and Diana has already closed. It ran less than a month, and for a scant two weeks after it officially opened, and some scheduled performances were cancelled due to illness.
Keiley and Fraser’s travesty will run until September 28, 2023.
As much as I disliked this Richard II, I must confess that, at least, it was not boring. Several Stratford veterans supplied strong performances that gave a hint of what a more accomplished production might have looked like. Among them were Tyrone Savage as Mowbray and David Collins as Gaunt, who has probably lost forever his chance to deliver that one great speech.
Best of all was Michael Spencer-Davis as the Duke of York. The only problem I saw with his performance was that his excellence in delivering Shakespeare’s verse, making it utterly understandable, tended to show up the deficiencies of some of his fellow cast members.
And what of the central performance? It may be true that, as Richard II himself says, “not all the water in the rough rude sea can wash the balm from an anointed King,” but overacting seems to do a pretty good job. This is the most trivial Richard II you are likely to see
Stephen Jackman-Torkoff (they/them) is a proudly out gay performer who has many talents, not to mention an extraordinarily long tongue. They contributed a perfectly delightful performance in last season’s Hamlet 911. They have an admirable facility with Shakespearean verse and, unlike some others in the cast, their delivery is always crystal clear. They can also dance up a storm.
Jackman-Torkoff has a face made for comedy and Keiley has obviously encouraged him to use his considerable comedic gifts, even when their use is completely inappropriate.
They have, God bless them, given themself over 110% to Keiley’s misbegotten notion of how the part should be played. Unfortunately, that notion is, in my view, 110% off the mark.
Still, Jackman-Torkoff gives every indication of having a rip-roaring time playing the part. I suspect that there is a leading role, perhaps yet unwritten, for which Jackman-Torkoff will be ideal. But Richard II isn’t it.
The most impressive work Keiley has done is with her creative team. Michael Gianfrancesco has created some devilishly clever, not to mention mobile, set pieces. His simulacrum of a hot tub at a gay bath house was most ingenious. On the other hand, his design for the prison cell to which Richard arrives in a translucent garbage bag was ludicrous.
I assume Gianfrancesco was also responsible for the many illuminated props which were fascinating but sometimes distracting. In one scene, I found myself so taken with martini glasses that were lit from inside that I stopped paying attention to the dialog.
Far better was Leigh Ann Vardy’s lighting which cleverly cast lines and blocks of light on the stage floor to indicate various locations and made the disco numbers pop.
Bretta Gerecke must have had great fun designing the costumes, even or perhaps especially the dumbest ones. Richard II’s fringed white outfit was an absolute hoot, even if the stag’s head codpiece might have been a bit much. I liked the way it shed elements as the play progressed until the incredibly skinny king (what’s his secret?) was left wearing nothing but white undies.
The original music by Rhapsodius and the sound design by Don Ellis proved integral elements of the overall conceit. The choreography by Cameron Carver was terrific fun during the dance numbers and I’m guessing his expertise guided other set pieces that involved the intervention of the angels.
Of course, Keiley and Fraser aren’t the only ones who can butcher Shakespeare, so to close . . .
Methinks, I am a prophet new-inspired.
This play of such dear words, this dear, dear play,
Dear for her reputation through the world,
Is now leased out – I die pronouncing it –
Like to a tenement or pelting farm.
Ah would the scandal vanish with my life,
How happy then were my ensuing death!
Richard II continues at the Tom Patterson Theatre through September 28, 2023. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit the Stratford Festival website.
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