Rarely do I find myself wishing that I could fast-forward a live theatrical show, but the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of Richard II, directed by Michael Kahn, had me daydreaming about DVR for the theatre.
Admittedly, I’m not as well versed on this tetralogy as some may be; however, I hardly feel that being a Shakespeare scholar should be required to see a work by the Bard. So if you don’t already know the story of Richard II, either do your prep work or skip over this performance, as you’ll likely find yourself lost.
There are elements to work with here. Lee Savage’s lavish sets and Jennifer Moeller’s costume design serve to underscore these always thoughtful and beautiful creative details at STC. Richard dons a brilliant gold cape, which flutters and whips gracefully as he bounds about the stage, and in his brilliance, Michael Hayden drives this show.
Richard II currently plays in repertory with Henry V at the STC, and Hayden plays both of the title roles. The man is a theatrical genius, not to mention exceedingly impressive for both his acting, and his stamina needed to play both of these incredible parts. Hayden as Richard thoroughly examines every facet of the king’s character. He is, among other things, pompous, silly, pleading and pitiful. Every time Hayden exits the stage, you will anxiously wait for his return. It’s not that the rest of the cast falls completely flat, but with such a text-heavy show, the beautiful, poetic language requires a bit more excitement than is presented here.
Moments are beautiful, and we are able to grasp Hayden’s portrayal of Richard. He seems to use the words as if they are a game; the lines are so poetic they are almost cryptic, but Hayden makes them entertaining to unravel. It is a Rubix Cube of language. The colors change and match up, and then he spins each row and starts again.
Despite its slight lack of excitement, Richard II does serve a respectable purpose: it sets us up for Henry V. Richard II helps audiences understand the ascension of the Lancastrian line and the eventual crowning of Henry V thirty-six years later, so it’s worth seeing if you want to get a fuller picture of this literary history. But Kahn’s Richard II just doesn’t seem enticing enough to stand on it’s own. It’s best to look at this production as part of the package that goes along with Henry V, and as a tool to examine these rulers. Hayden dominates in both, and impressively demonstrates kings whose attitudes and successes are miles apart. Seeing Richard flounder about, unable to effectively rule, only makes Henry’s determination and drive seem more urgent and impressive.
Hayden’s performances are the real highlight of both Richard II and Henry V. Taking on the Herculean task of playing these emotionally and characteristically diverse kings at the same time could make any Tony Award-winning actor anxious. But if Hayden is even the slightest bit nervous about his performances, it’s impossible to tell. He grasps the language with such talent and grace, that it makes you think, “Well, of course Hayden should be playing both of these kings simultaneously. He’s just that amazing.”
Richard II runs February 2 – April 10, 2010 at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F Street NW, Washington, DC, 20004. Information can be found at http://www.shakespearetheatre.org/index.aspx.