You say you want a revolution. Well, you know — we all wanna rule the world.
Over four nights this week, the Public Theater and WNYC presented a sound-only revolution — an incompetent king dethroned, humiliated and murdered in an audio performance of “Richard II.” The polished production (presented as Shakespeare on the Radio, subbing for the canceled Shakespeare in the Park) spent too much energy explaining itself and trying to infuse the themes of the play with contemporary political relevance.
But the mostly Black cast, led by a suave André Holland in the title role, delivered electric performances, spotlighting the aural delights of Shakespeare’s language.
“Richard II,” the less popular and less produced of the two “Richards,” introduces a changeable king. Indecisive and amenable to the whims of his buddies, he is approached to be an arbiter in the fiery dispute between two dukes, one of whom is his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke. Both dukes are exiled, but Bolingbroke soon returns with the support of the people to depose the king, who realizes too late that carelessness has cost him his title, his honor and his legacy.
In many ways the play works like a protracted chess game: The pieces are arranged on the squares early, and the first moves foreshadow the final turn and checkmate. “Richard II” is also our introduction to the Henriad, two tetralogies that trace the path of the English throne from one Richard, through two Henrys, to a final Richard. That’s over 80 years of battles, scheming dukes, disgruntled royals and elegant speeches about leaders and politics. It’s a jungle of context, enough to get lost in.
The Public’s production — each segment an hour, broadcast on consecutive days, and available to listen to as a podcast — was bookended and burdened by interviews with cast members and Shakespeare scholars. They were helpful and interesting, but only to a point.
The self-conscious question at the heart of the endeavor is: Why this play, and why now? The answer offered by the cast and the director, Saheem Ali, was to read the trials of Black Americans in the struggles of Bolingbroke, having been robbed of his birthright, and the recent protests for racial justice in the uprising against Richard.
Ali beefed up the stage directions with Lupita Nyong’o as narrator, delivering not just the setting but a SparkNotes-like summary of what was to follow (“Think of this as a murder mystery,” she began.) Yes, the story’s knotty, but the production could fully stand on its own two feet without all of this didacticism.
At the same time, an audio rendition lives or dies by its language, and Ali’s direction drew out every ounce of snap in the exchanges among antagonists.
Miriam A. Hyman, a hip-hop artist as well as an actor, showed meticulous attention to modulation and tone as a gender-bent Bolingbroke. Sometimes her voice swelled rhythmically; at other times, she slung her words like an attack, dynamically stretching her syllables.
There were several solid performances: Phylicia Rashad, as the grieving Duchess of Gloucester, revealing an almost physical grief; Dakin Matthews, chewing on John of Gaunt’s meaty dying speech; and Jacob Ming-Trent, with the arresting energy of a preacher at a pulpit as Carlisle.
Sean Carvajal, in one of the more idiosyncratic performances, wore his Shakespeare like a pair of comfortable sweats, almost subversively contemporary. As Surrey, he trilled his tongue daringly as he threw down a gage; as a gossiping gardener, he exclaimed a comical “Whaaaaaaaat? Think you the King shall be deposed?”
The star here, however, was our king, performed by Holland with creamy smoothness and remarkable grace. In one scene, when Richard returns to England after war, he presses his head to the earth and whispers lovingly to the land. Here it’s as if you were hearing Holland speak his sweet nothings in your ear, so intimate you could almost feel his breath against your cheek.
Even in the king’s scenes near collapse, Holland stayed composed, his voice reflexively decisive and self-assured. (There’s an irony here, as Holland comes off as too smart to be the ineffectual king we’re meant to see.)
In one interview segment, Ali described the play as a “long, slow, beautiful release of Richard’s humanity,” but it’s hard to square that with the production’s framing of Bolingbroke’s revolution as akin to Black Lives Matter protests. Shakespeare’s histories don’t sit so neatly in contemporary categories; one may see the king as a tragic hero, undone by his flaws, not just the misguided antagonist.
And Bolingbroke’s motives — whether he has always wanted the crown, whether he actually wanted Richard dead — are unclear. In one especially expert line reading, during Richard’s brutal deposition by Bolingbroke, Holland declared, “God save the King!” Silence hung heavily in the air. “Will no man say ‘Amen’?” he finally followed, so meekly it was shattering.
Casting a Black woman as Bolingbroke avoids the unsavory racial implications that would come with a white man unseating a Black king, but what it says about gender and power in the context of the Black community is left murky.
I also found the music, by Michael Thurber, distracting rather than enhancing, with hokey, maudlin strings and piano used too heavily between scenes. The sound effects, under Isaac Jones’s technical direction, were vividly textured, however. Footsteps echoing on the palace floor, crowds cheering in the distance — all provided dimension and made the actors, themselves groaning and grunting and sighing, sound remarkably present. There was never the sense of a character speaking lines out into an empty space.
A radio “Richard II” won’t change how much I am sorely missing Shakespeare under the stars in Central Park this summer. But I am glad I got to hear this king — and queens and dukes — pronouncing and prattling in my ear, regaling me in the comfort of my home.
Available on wnycstudios.org, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Play, Stitcher and other audio streaming services.