Hamlet, Macbeth, Falstaff, Prospero and the comedy heroines get all the attention and frequently, the most exposure. Bring up a king from a Shakespeare play and invariably people are going to come back with, “Oh right, the hunchbacked bastard who murdered the two kids.” That would be Richard III, who everybody knows.
Even so, when PBS and WNET's THIRTEEN series announced its airing of a new six part series on the plays of Shakespeare, “Shakespeare Uncovered,” my eyes zipped not to the “Hamlet” and “Macbeth” segments, not to the heavy hitters like Ethan Hawke, Jeremy Irons and director Trevor Nunn but to the first of the two segments airing Feb. 1: “Richard II with Derek Jacobi.”
“In returning to the role of a deposed monarch whose crown is taken from him, Derek Jacobi takes a 360 degree view of the great political thriller whose title character he played more than 30 years ago. Jacobi shares insights of the play’s political twists – and their modern equivalents – that have kept Richard II resonant for centuries through its understanding of power’s tendency to corrupt and distort the truth, and how quickly power might be lost. While coaching actors at Shakespeare’s Globe, Jacobi describes how the play was used by the Earl of Essex in his attempted coup against Queen Elizabeth I, and persuaded Shakespeare’s own company to stage it to encourage the Earl’s “plotters.” Jacobi reveals how the plot nearly cost Shakespeare his life. Also featured are notable excerpts from the upcoming Great Performances film adaptation starring Ben Whishaw and Patrick Stewart.”
Exciting-sounding stuff, no? Truthfully, they had me at “Richard II.” Love that play. Always have. Ever since I acted in a college production way back in my student days. I was at UC Riverside. “Richard II” was at the University of Redlands. I had three roles and I got to recite some of the most beautiful language ever written in one of the coolest – and less-staged – Shakespeare plays ever written.
Granted, nobody aspires to play Sir Stephen Scroop, but how about this for delivered bad news in Act 3, scene 2:
Glad am I that your highness is so arm'd
To bear the tidings of calamity.
Like an unseasonable stormy day,
Which makes the silver rivers drown their shores,
As if the world were all dissolved to tears,
So high above his limits swells the rage
Of Bolingbroke, covering your fearful land
With hard bright steel and hearts harder than steel.
White-beards have arm'd their thin and hairless scalps
Against thy majesty; boys, with women's voices,
Strive to speak big and clap their female joints
In stiff unwieldy arms against thy crown:
The very beadsmen learn to bend their bows
Of double-fatal yew against thy state;
Yea, distaff-women manage rusty bills
Against thy seat: both young and old rebel,
And all goes worse than I have power to tell.
Good stuff, no?
In a nutshell, “Richard II” is the tale of a somewhat frivolous king who, due to his lack of political finesse, sees his crown taken away by his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke (the future Henry IV). Bolingbroke is not the titled heir to the British throne, making his usurpation a sore spot as this and other Shakespeare plays move forward. Richard and Bolingbroke are two wonderful parts. The entire play is written in verse (the only Shakespeare play thus constructed).
Kevin Spacey has played Richard as has Jeremy Irons and Fiona Shaw. I’ve seen the play staged but three times: at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (with the late Rex Rabold in the title role), at San Diego’s Old Globe with Brian Bedford in 1986 (the theater hasn’t staged it since) and with Kelsey Grammer at the Mark Taper Forum.
The southland is due for a major revival somewhere at some point. In the fall, we’ll get what looks like a very interesting spin on “Richard II” courtesy of director Jessica Kubzansky, co Artistic Director of the Theater at Boston Court.
Titled simply “R II,” and scheduled to run September 5 to October 13, the production is described thus:
“Stripped to its very essence, Kubzansky’s Richard II is theatrical, raw, and performed with only three actors. As Richard says: “thus play I in one person many people—and none contented.” Shakespeare’s tale still resonates deeply today, posing the ultimate identity crisis. When arrogant King Richard is deposed by Bolingbroke, who has good reason to lead a rebellion and seize the crown, Richard is left bewildered as he struggles to find a new identity, and Bolingbroke is overwhelmed by how hard it is to be king. After all, who are we without our names or titles?”
Not sure the Boston Court will be exactly jammed for a three-person conceptual version of “Richard II,” but I will be there.
Although my mantra is live first, the remainder of PBS’s Shakespeare Uncovered also is worth attention. It gets underway Friday, Jan. 25 with “Macbeth” (9-10 p.m. eastern time) with Ethan Hawke followed by The Comedies with Joely Richardson (10-11 p.m.) Feb. 1 sees the aforementioned “Richard II” with Derek Jacobi (9-10) and “Henry IV and Henry V” with Jeremy Irons (10-11). The series closes out Feb. 8 with “Hamlet” with David Tenannt (9-10) and “The Tempest” with Trevor Nunn (10-11).
Read more about the whole series here.