“Richard II” at Seattle Shakespeare

Richard needed a job coach. As Shakespeare presents him, he’s not the wisest of rulers, clearly not good at making smart decisions or assessing the value of his underlings. Director Rosa Joshi and George Mount, who plays the role, present him in the first act as disengaged, somewhat dull, and lacking fire in his loins. But come the second act, he’s a battered figure who evokes our compassion and pity.SSC_Richard_II-2014-955

This is a difficult play, hence rarely performed. It opens with a clash between two nobles, Mowbray and Bolingbroke. King Richard intercedes and banishes both: Mowbray for life, Bolingbroke for ten then only six years. Richard will learn as the play progresses that it would have been better to have kept Bolingbroke away from the kingdom for life. When Bolingbroke’s father, who is also the king’s uncle, dies, Richard appropriates all his wealth. Bolingbrook returns to England, fortified by other nobles and their soldiers to regain his inheritance and overthrow the King. Richard winds up in the Tower where he is murdered. The play ends with Bolingbroke, crown on head, looking down on the bloodied body of the former king and the severed heads of his allies.

The staging of this production is thrilling. Carol Wolfe Clay’s minimalist set and Geoff Korf’s lighting powerfully reinforce mood, as does Dominic CodyKramers sound. The costumes (Joycelyne Fowler) are lush. What I found disappointing was George Mount’s portrayal of Richard throughout the first act. Perhaps the intent was to create the image of a martyr but it just didn’t work for me. In the second act where Richard is stripped of power, Mount’s acting soars as he exposes Richard’s pitiable failure

This is one of the more complex of the history plays. It’s unlikely you’ll get another opportunity to see it again any time soon. If you like Shakespeare and want to see the whole canon, make an effort to introduce yourself to Richard and his friends and enemies as presented here.

Through Feb. 2 at Center Theatre in The Armory at Seattle Center, (206 733-8222 or www.seattleshakespeare.org)

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