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Exploring the family bonds and male energy of Shakespeare's Richard II

Seattle Shakespeare's artistic director George Mount takes the throne as Richard II.
Seattle Shakespeare's artistic director George Mount takes the throne as Richard II.
Jason Marr, George Mount (Richard II), Jay Myers, Victor Matlock, and Mike Dooly. Photo by John Ulman.

Rosa Joshi is best known in Seattle for her work in bringing new actors and audiences to classic and contemporary theater.

An associate professor at Seattle University, she directs one production per season for the university’s Fine Arts program. At Northwest Asian American Theatre (NWAAT), she led the International Artists Program in 1998 to 1999 to foster collaborations between Asian and Asian-American artists. She’s also served as a resident director at New City Theatre, directed multiple productions at theaters around the city, and co-founded upstart crow, a group that produces classical plays with all-female casts.

This month, she’s working at Seattle Shakespeare Company, directing the first play in the “Henryiad,” the Bard’s series of history plays dealing with the rise of the Tudor dynasty during the War of the Roses. Richard II opens Jan. 10 at Seattle Shakespeare in a production starring George Mount as the doomed king.

During a break from technical rehearsals, Joshi discussed the appeal of the play nearly four centuries after its premiere.

There's been many recent revivals of Shakespeare's Henryiad -- including the Hollow Crown series by BBC (which draws its title from Richard II's monologue in Act III) -- and a great deal of commentary how the plays consciously or unconsciously inspire the writers of such popular media as Game of Thrones or House of Cards. For you, what it is the appeal of Richard II?
What I love about plays like Richard II, that combine tragedy and history, is the interplay between the political and personal. What really drives the drama of the politics for me is that this is really a dynastic struggle in which family relationships are tightly intertwined with political relationships. Richard and Bolingbroke are cousins; John of Gaunt and York are Richard’s uncles. The play really pulls us between loyalty to family and loyalty to state. Where is your allegiance and what is the price you pay for choosing one over the other? Right after we began rehearsals the news came out of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un having his uncle executed in order to consolidate his own power. At that moment you could feel this electric charge of convergence between our current historical moment and the historical events in the play. It's not just 'on the stage' that family bonds pitted against political ambition can have terrifying consequences.

In approaching the text with the actors, how did you direct them to handle the poetry of this play, often said to be one of Shakespeare’s most formal?
The verse is very formal, incorporating rhymed couplets and rhetorical structures. I try to make the language specific and active so that we’re watching people who are listening and speaking to each other. I also believe that embracing the poetry of the language heightens the emotional expanse and honesty of the characters. So striking a balance between embracing that poetry and creating a world where language is the prime motivator of action is what I try to focus on.

Generally this play is not performed in full, due to length and complexity. Were there any cuts in the text that you felt had to be made to hang onto a modern audience?
I think cutting a Shakespeare play is an essential part of shaping the story as a director. There are cuts that I’ve made to help streamline the text to help a contemporary audience navigate their way through the story, such as eliminating the character of Hotspur. He is actually introduced in Richard II, and in the context of doing the whole span of plays from Richard II to Henry V, it would be fantastic to retain that character. In the context of just doing Richard II, it was a character that I felt could be excised without sacrificing the essential story of the play.

What were you determined to keep?
I wanted to leave in as much of the poetry that shaped and gave insight into Richard’s internal journey. So there are places where it may seem to us that the text is ‘excessive’, but that is exactly why it has to stay in – because it is the extravagance of the language that illuminates for us and connects us to the turmoil in Richard’s internal state.

For me, it's always the "death of kings" monologue in Act III that really defines Richard’s resolution of that struggle.
I would agree with you. I think this is a turning point for Richard. I’m struck by how in this speech, Richard is preoccupied not with the loss of his kingdom as one might expect, but with death and his own mortality. It’s the point in the play when he has this realization that death is inescapable and that the role he has been ‘cast’ in is exactly that – a role. And stripped of the trappings of that role, he is simply another mortal being with basic human needs. From that point on, he starts to see that the things that have been verifying his identity are fragile and that in the end the only certainty is death.

Richard II is, like all the history plays, a largely male cast. In fact, it's pretty much the epitome of "dead white guys" drama. In a multicultural city like Seattle, how do you make this 400-year-old story resonate and connect with your audience?
What makes this play resonate for a contemporary audience is really how Richard grapples with the loss of who he is. From that perspective, the story of the fall of a medieval king is also the story of someone facing a loss of identity and purpose in the world. Without the roles that identify us, that give our lives meaning, how can we understand what it means to be a person? Or is that stripping down perhaps a path towards understanding our real humanity? Richard loses everything that he has known that has given his life meaning, and in the absence of that he is left to confront a world that has no recognizable framework.

At upstart crow, you remount classics with all female casts. Any plans to ever do this with any of the history plays?
Actually our first project was the tragedy King John. I would jump at another chance to do a history play with upstart crow. Any time you have a single gender on stage I think it makes you notice gender more specifically – and the very male energy in the history plays can be thrown into relief when taken on by an all female cast. And there are so many outstanding female actors who are chomping at the bit to do classical work in Seattle, who never get the opportunity to tackle the cannon in the same way the men do – so that is part of the attraction for me too of the work of upstart crow. Having said that it’s been a real pleasure to have the opportunity to work with so many amazing men on this Seattle Shakespeare production!

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Richard II runs through Feb. 2 at at the Center Theatre at Seattle Center. For tickets and times, see the company’s website.