A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions
Richard II

At Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre on the Thames, audiences are cheering Mark Rylance as Richard II, the weak king whose self-indulgence leads to his deposition.  The play well fits this wonderful, exact replica of the Elizabethan stage, and it ushers in, chronologically, Shakespeare’s history series. This play depicts Richard’s failure as a king, leading to his deposition by Bolingbroke, who becomes, in the next play, the troubled Henry IV, father of the hero of Agincourt (seen as an anti-hero at the National Theatre.).  However, the deposition also leads to the Wars of the Roses, chronicled in three Henry VI plays by Shakespeare, ending in the reign of the villainous Richard III.(On stage both at the Globe and at Stratford). Henry VII defeats Richard, and his son Henry VIII is the subject of the final chronicle play. It ends with the christening of the baby who would become Queen Elizabeth I, ushering in peace and prosperity for the nation.

Mr. Rylance creates a prancing dandy of a king who holds a handkerchief to his nose to avoid germs from the dying Gaunt (John McEnery) just after his “sceptered isle” speech, and pummels the old man for chastising him.  Richard giggles with his cronies as he hears of his adversary Bolingbroke’s “courtship of the common people” as he makes his way to banishment, while his inheritance is grabbed by Richard, who sees himself gloriously leading his troops against an Irish rebellion.  In addition to Richard’s outward behavior as dictated by the text, Mr. Rylance adds many insightful touches to convince the audience that Richard is a shallow person who values his appearance more than his responsibilities: note his concern with his shoes.  All the costumes, incidentally, are a delight, for they, like the stage, are exact replicas of the age -- the clothes we see in woodcuts, drawings, and portraits.

That his expedition to Ireland fails doesn’t worry Richard, for as he returns to England, this playacting king sees himself in a new role.  Now he is a martyr whose troops are deserting him, whose henchmen have been killed by Bolingbroke for being “caterpillars of the commonwealth,” and whose recourse is exaggerated self-pity, pleading for understanding.  Mr. Rylance’s Richard plays to the audience for their pity (as surely Burbage did) as he asks the front-row groundlings to join the earth in harming Bolingbroke with poisonous plants (which Richard doles out to them).  That Richard is not a logical thinker, who should have been aware of consequences, the actor suggests by hesitation and pauses in delivering the lines – wondering what to say next, or repeating words and lines.   Sometimes this brings laughter, acceptable for this interpretation of Richard.  Rylance makes his slight build a virtue, especially in the second half of the play, as Richard’s fortunes decline while the audience’s sympathy grows.

The final soliloquy in which Richard attempts to “people this little world” (his cell) with his thoughts, is extremely well delivered, and by the time Richard grabs a stave from one of the murderers and staunchly defends himself, Mr. Rylance has turned a popinjay  king into a tragic hero.  Liam Brennan creates a sturdy Bolingbroke, quietly maintaining patience as Richard acts his big scene – the deposition – while he divests himself of his properties, the crown and scepter, to the “silent king” Henry IV.  Bill Stewart is effective as the testy Duke of York, whose loyalty to the new king is so great that he will even testify against his own son.

Tim Carroll directs the all-male cast.  Surely research in Elizabethan stage practice (or even seeing “Shakespeare in Love”) will reveal that young boys whose voices had not yet changed played the women’s roles.  To see a big, hulking, low-voiced man in a wig and dress is not convincing (especially when Richard has to stand on his toes to kiss his queen), and one begs that once, just once, the casting of these roles at the Globe might match the authenticity of the Globe’s Elizabethan stage and costumes. In repertory through September 27.  Performance schedule: www.shakespeares-globe.org.