Center House Theatre, Seattle Center, 733-8222, seattleshakespeare.org. $25–$48. 7:30 p.m. Wed.–Sat., plus weekend matinees. Ends Feb. 2.
Despite lovely renaissance costumes by Jocelyne Fowler, the entire time I watched Seattle Shakes’ artistic director George Mount in the title role of this stiff yet poetic prequel to Shakespeare’s more famous Henry plays, I was thinking about George W. Bush. Differences between the divine right of kings and democracy aside, Richard’s position wasn’t all that different from W’s: He came to office through family privilege, was surrounded by flatterers, altered laws to suit his whims, bestowed hen houses to crony foxes, and was ultimately replaced by a man of sounder action.
On Carol Wolfe Clay’s austere set, Mount dwindles from a coddled jackass prince to a naked nobody controlling nothing. Forget pathos, director Rosa Joshi goes for cynical laughs—and the approach does work; perhaps it’s the best way to get a modern audience to connect with the somewhat bureaucratic play.
The plot in short: Smug King Richard II from the House of York is challenged for the throne by his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, House of Lancaster. Richard banishes Bolingbroke (David Foubert), around whom the forces of the Earl of Northumberland (Reginald André Jackson) rally to overthrow Richard.
At the time Richard II was written, this would have been a major dilemma for everyone, as it took divine matters into human hands. In our present age of revolving-door politics, it means little. Still, the production deftly milks scenes in which characters in the middle, such as John of Gaunt (Dan Kremer) and the Duke of York (Peter A. Jacobs) weigh divine right against popular might. With charming understatement, Kremer’s Gaunt attempts to comfort his son Bolingbroke about the upsides of banishment. The distinctly nuanced Jacobs manages to carry off the extremely improbable notion of a father seeking the death of his own son to punish the lad’s support of the old regime.
This is not a revival that’s going to score a strong emotional response with the audience. On the page, at least, Richard II is an interesting precursor not only to the Henry plays, but also to the more mature study in failed kingship that Shakespeare would write a decade later—King Lear.