'Richard II' by William Shakespeare. Adapted by Brad Fraser and Conceived by Jillian Keiley
Now playing at the Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford, Ontario
Credit: David Hou. Standing: Jordin Hall. Kneeling: Stephen Jackman-Torkoff
A ballsy adaptation that smacks hard. It sometimes stings as it rightly should, but it will be remembered.
Henry Bolingbroke (Jordin Hall) and Thomas Mowbray (Tyrone Savage) argue and agree then to a duel which is in the form of a wrestling match (eerily similar to the wrestling scene from D. H. Lawrence's 'Women in Love') with their shirts off. King Richard (Stephen Jackman- Torkoff) eventually intervenes when the men just get a tad too rough and sends both into exile, Bolingbroke for ten years and Mowbray for life. Bolingbroke’s father, John of Gaunt (David Collins), Richard’s uncle, convinces the king to reduce his son’s exile to six years. After the banishment, John of Gaunt takes ill.
When Richard pays his final respects, he takes offence to his uncle’s criticism of his Majesty’s heavy-handed rule and won’t allow Gaunt to leave his title and fortune to Bolingbroke. Upon Gaunt’s death, Richard seizes Gaunt’s fortunes to fund the war in Ireland. When the king leaves to fight in Ireland, he places the kingdom in his uncle, The Duke of York’s (Michael Spencer-Davis) hands. While the king is gone, Bolingbroke returns to claim his inheritance, convincing York of no other intentions for the throne. When Richard returns to England, the country is on the brink of civil war.
As the story progresses, the audience witnesses the ineptness of Richard’s rule as king.
I did my best not to listen or read anything about this ‘Richard II.’ Still, the word’s out that some audiences leave in disgust, shock, or a combination of both, as there are homosexual moments that may make some uncomfortable.
So what? To be honest, more has been made of it than needs to be.
This ‘Richard’ is ballsy. It sometimes stings as theatre should and must do. Recently I read an article in Intermission by Mira Miller about artist Maev Beaty who stated that live theatre: “is not up there to present good, clean work – we’re up there to try and catch some truth for the listener [and watcher] that is shared in real time. You can’t do that if you’re just presenting your good homework; you have to live.”
This is precisely what Director/Conceiver Jillian Keiley and Adapter Brad Fraser have accomplished as their ‘Richard II’ is convincingly packaged. Designer Michael Gianfrancesco ably sets the production in the late 70s/early 80s disco scene of New York’s Studio 54. The production is a veritable candy store for the eyes, thanks to Leigh Ann Vardy’s terrific neon disco lighting. I loved the giant disco ball that periodically descends. Choreographer Cameron Carver’s dynamite 70s disco moves using the Angel Army remain stunning to watch them move in sexy and synchronized unison. Bretta Gerecke’s scintillating costume designs from the Studio 54 era are eye-popping, especially Richard’s opening white feathery outfit. Don Ellis’s terrific music selection and design for the ears fondly take me back to that 70s and 80s disco craze that was part of my undergraduate years.
Keiley's direction is consistently electrifying. She and Fraser have made excellent choices to capture the vivid reality of a flamboyantly harsh and risky homoerotic lifestyle that never remains stagnant. For one, the dramatic choice to include The Angel Army remains most appropriately wise. Richard's unwavering belief in the Divine Right of Kings provides him with an unshakable sense of salvation, despite his visible decline before the audience.
Stephen Jackman-Torkoff delivers a captivating performance as Richard, exuding unbridled passion and energy in his movements and marked by his unwavering resolve, rebelliousness, and conceitedness. Interestingly, Sean Carney raises a thought-provoking question in the Program Note - should we feel pity for the King or judge him? Personally, I lean towards the former. The image of Richard's grand entrance with his Army of Angels strewn across the floor at the end of Act One is just one example of why. The horrific look of surprising disbelief on Jackman-Torkoff’s face, combined with the utmost quiet from the audience watching, has etched an indelible image in my memory of that moment.
Several performances also remain memorable. Emilio Vieira’s Lord Aumerle remains steadfastly grounded in his unbridled passion for his ruler, as evidenced in his passionate encounter with his King in a bathhouse. Yet, Aumerle is a troubled individual with political and familial conflicts. Religious implications are also skewered with Steve Ross’s Bishop of Carlisle as Richard’s rightful spiritual advisor. Instead, it becomes a complete shock to see the Bishop illicitly, willfully and actively participating in a gay bathhouse. Charlie Gallant’s Lord Willoughby whose persistent cough gets worse and worse grimly reminds once again of the 70s and 80s Studio 54 scene.
Shakespeare purists have also commented that text sections have been removed or those from other plays have been added in this adaptation. Some articles I’ve read questioned why Fraser included lines from other Shakespearean plays.
Again, who cares why he did this, but I would like to add something further as a retired secondary school teacher.
From an educational perspective, I still have discussions with individuals about the value of Shakespeare’s plays in 21st-century schools. Nowhere in the Ontario English curriculum document does it state that a Shakespearean play must be studied every year, so what’s the benefit of doing so?
As a retired teacher, I wouldn’t dare take secondary students on a school trip during the day to see this ‘Richard,’ and I’m positive Keiley and Fraser would agree not to do so. Ontario teachers have enough on their plates without having to add this.
It would be beneficial for teachers to encourage young people to think and understand that it's okay to take some creative liberties with the text when it's appropriate. Jillian Keiley and Brad Fraser did so, and their ‘Richard II’ is completely justified in this respect. Let's move away from the idea that Shakespeare's plays must remain strictly purist in nature.
Running time: approximately two hours and forty minutes with one interval.
Richard II runs until September 28 at the Tom Patterson Theatre, 111 Lakeside Drive, Stratford. For tickets, visit stratfordfestival.ca or call 1-800-567-1600.
RICHARD II by William Shakespeare
Adapted by Brad Fraser and Conceived by Jillian Keiley
Director: Jillian Keiley
Choreographer: Cameron Carver
Set Designer: Michael Gianfrancesco
Costume Designer: Bretta Gerecke
Lighting Designer: Leigh Ann Vardy
Sound Designer: Don Ellis
The Company: Stephen Jackman-Torkoff, Jordin Hall, Emilio Vieira, Michael Spencer-Davis, Debbie Patterson, David Collins, Hannah Wigglesworth, Tyrone Savage, Sarah Orenstein, Matthew Kabwe, Thomas Duplessie, John Wamsley, Andrew Robinson, Steve Ross, Marcus Nance, Sarah Dodd, Justin Eddy, Celia Aloma, Malina Carroll, Mateo G. Torres, Matthew joseph, Wahsonti:io Kirby, Heather Kosik, Chris Mejaki, Olivia Sinclair-Brisbane, jane Spidell, Danielle Verayo, Alex Wierzbicki, Travae Williams.