PROVO — The story of Richard II is a historical adaptation of the last two years in the life of King Richard II of England, as written by William Shakespeare. The tale is one of war, dueling, scandals, and dethroning a king. The duke of Bolingbroke is banished from England, to hear shortly after that his father has died, and King Richard has stolen his inheritance to fund the war against Ireland. Bolingbroke gathers those loyal to him, and returns to England early to take back what is rightfully his, and ultimately inherit the crown. This adventure is taken on as a 90-minute production by the Grassroots Shakespeare Company in Provo. This is their first production to be directed, and it seems that there are still some things to be worked out in the production, no matter the talent of the actors on the stage.
When first entering the theatre, there was light guitar music to welcome the audience. While not all of the music played was fitting to the time period of the play, the music was light and set a good tone for the upcoming performance. Shortly before the actors graced the stage, an announcer of sorts came into the space to give a brief explanation of Shakespeare productions, and informed the audience that the style of performance was that of a court, the same way that Shakespeare and his men performed for royalty and nobility. While neither of these elements was directly associated with the performance of the show, they both did a wonderful job of preparing the specific atmosphere required with Shakespeare’s work.
Richard II was portrayed by Jordan Kramer, who had a unique take on the character. Though committed to his character, Kramer sometimes did not show that Richard himself knew why he was making the decisions he was making. While that alludes to the historical Richard’s arbitrary nature, there were times it was misplaced. As Bolingbroke and Mowbray brought their quarrel before the throne, the feeling was that King Richard had no concern for the life of these men, and his air of aloofness fit well with the scene and the circumstances. However, later in the show when Richard is giving his crown up to Bolingbroke (soon to be Henry IV), the reasoning seemed unclear. There was very little conviction about the country which Richard ruled until the moment when Henry reached for the crown, and suddenly it seemed as if Kramer didn’t fully grasp why Richard was giving up his power in the first place.
Additionally, in the moments where Richard was most enthused or full of emotion, Kramer was in danger of losing ennunciation, and in several pivotal moments (including while breaking up the duel of Mowbray and Bolingbroke, and while defending his position as king), there were lost lines. This led to a break in the feeling and the emotion of the moment. When executed carefully however, Kramer delivered moving monologues with understanding and grace. Points where this restraint combined with emotion made for a character to enjoy, including his speech about “the devil in the crown,” and speaking of the end drawing nigh when he spoke, “I hath wasted time, and now time doth waste me.” My guest and I especially enjoyed both of these moments.
The role of Thomas of Mowbray, played by Jon Low, was entertaining and riveting when the attention was on him, but seemed bored while waiting to speak. One moment in particular where this was seen was during the first scene when Thomas was before the King to settle his dispute with Bolingbroke, and he seemed to be just waiting for it to be over, as if his life were not on the line in this discussion. The feeling in this scene was not simply that Thomas knew he was innocent and wanted to be acquitted, but it seemed as if Thomas felt he had no need to be there in the first place. Moments later, when it was his turn to appeal to the court and King, Low did it with such fervor and demand of attention that no matter who was right, it was known that he truly believed himself to be innocent. Additionally, it was distracting to see Low in essentially the same costume when playing other roles, something not true of other cast members who were doubling parts. It would have enhanced the experience to have some sort of distinction between the characters he was playing, because while the scene dictated that he was someone else in several moments, there was nothing to physically suggest this change.
One of the highlights of the night was the dedication to character that was seen in Jason Sullivan as John of Gaunt. Sullivan (who also directed this production) was playing a character easily 40 years his senior, but he bridged that gap with professionalism and ease. The was Sullivan took on the mannerisms of an older man are seldom found in non-professional theatre and show a great deal of dedication to the art. His interactions with all, but most especially his son Henry Bolingbroke and the widowed Duchess of Gloucester, were fitting of a fatherly figure who seemed aged and wise. As he listened to the ruling of King Richard to banish his son for six winters, Sullivan showed a loving mix of respect and anger at the decision made. The expression of concern that John of Gaunt had for his son never outweighed his love and respect of King and country. When Sullivan made a return to the stage as his secondary character of the Abbot of Westminster, it was a wholehearted change, and the similarities were in nothing but face.
Throughout the show there were wonderful moments where, as an audience member, I felt transported back to the time of King Richard and lost in the wonder that is a work of Shakespeare. Yet, as I watched in such an intimate setting, there were things that seemed inappropriate for the show’s time and place. For example, yoga pants on a character that is supposed to be a guard of the king was out of place, and sequined shirts paired with flower patterned jeans were not around in the time of the Bard. Use of a modern mirror in several instances would be less obvious if there was any attempt to add age or flare to it. The aforementioned elements of the show seemed a lack of effort, while other things could be attributed to a deeper lack of research, including the modern dressing of the Abbot of Westminster, and the general lack of sword etiquette during scenes of sword play. The only reason this is a matter of interest is a concern for the danger that could befall the actors without proper training or respect for the weapons used in character.
Shawn Saunders played the role of Henry of Bolingbroke in a subtle manner that slowly grew to the regal king the script required. At the start of the performance, Saunders seemed to struggle to get a feel for the iambic pentameter of Shakespeare’s words, but grasped the concept and rhythm as the night progressed. While Saunders had several moments of shining character, it wasn’t until his final speech declaring, “men hath made me king” that I realized that Henry would be a worthy fit to the throne. As he plead for justice for his departed uncle and came home to defend his inheritance and the honor of his father, Saunders created a deep character.
Time and word constraints don’t allow for all of the notable details of the show, so to get the full experience, you will need to see the show yourself. If you are looking for a night of dedicated Shakespeare with authentic costumes and props, this is not a show for your taste. However, if you want to experience something genuine from your community and see talent grace the stage for an entertaining evening, the Grassroots Shakespeare Company’s rendition of Richard II will be a night to enjoy.