For 32 years, the Palm Beach Shakespeare Festival has been exploring the works of its namesake playwright, but has avoided his history plays. Until now.
From July 7 through the 17th, at Jupiter’s Carlin Park Seabreeze Amphitheater, and again at Royal Palm Beach’s Commons Park Amphitheater, July 21–24, the Festival will present the Bard’s Richard II, his first history play and the first of four chronicles of the Lancaster dynasty.
“While this play is called ‘Richard II,’ it could easily have been ‘Henry IV, The Prequel,’” suggests Trent Stephens, who directs this production. “Because we get to see the formation of Henry IV’s administration.”
So why has it taken this long for the company to tackle Richard II? “I think there’s a stigma about the histories,” says Seth Trucks, a longtime member of the company, who will be playing King Richard II. “There’s always an audience for Shakespeare, especially free Shakespeare, but it always comes down to the same seven or eight plays that companies want to take a chance with. In people’s minds, they expect the histories to be boring or procedural, and a number of them are. Richard is certainly the exception.”
As Trucks sees it, Richard II is as much a tragedy as it is a history. In it, the young King Richard finds himself in over his head trying to rule England, so he gives up the crown, passing it on to his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, who becomes Henry IV.
“The classic dramaturgical question is ‘Why now?’,” posits Stephens. “I think in our culture we’re going through quite a bit of change, and some of it is long-overdue change. So with this, I kind of wanted a nuanced exploration of what change looks like. The good and the bad. But I think what is interesting is that dramatically, the play explores the psychological effects of change.”
Stephens emphasizes that the play definitely has resonances to today. “Oh, clearly, yeah. I think that the histories are probably some of the most misunderstood of his works, because you hear ‘history’ and you think ‘I’m going to get a lesson’ on something that once was. But no, like any sort of political drama, it will resonate with now in a certain way. It will harmonize with what we’re going through now.”
Richard II feels ripped from today’s headlines, according to Stephens. “It’s extremely relevant. When you want to put it through the winds of a petulant, entitled person of power stomping his foot, not wanting to give that power up, when the next generation is saying, ‘OK, it’s time to share.’ The examples abound today. The task for us is to not be too on the nose, because it is a timeless play, and it is a classic. We don’t want to narrow it too much. For me, it’s not important that I define that for audiences. For instance, it might conjure January 6 for someone. If you choose to see that in the play, the text supports it.”
Still, in the unconventional production style that the Festival is known for, this Richard II begins in historically accurate 1398, then moves forward in time to finish in 2022. “We’re interested in the play existing in two worlds at once. Through a number of elements, we’re hoping to explore what the play looks like in its original context set in 1398, and then juxtaposing a modern context,” says Stephens.
“As characters are defecting to Bolingbroke, they physically change their clothes into modern attire to launch us into today,” explains Courtney Poston, who plays Henry Bolingbroke. Poston’s casting is one of several gender switches in the production. Having a woman play Bolingbroke “supports the idea of the changing of the guard,” says Poston. “I will be dressed in pants and a jacket, maybe even a tie. But I don’t think it will go unnoticed that there is a woman rising up and taking the power and the throne.”
Also in the Festival’s tradition, Stephens has unapologetically cut the play’s text down to a two-hour running time. “When we talk about cutting the plays, I think people are a little precious about it. I understand their instinct that somehow what’s on the page is the play in its truest form. But we don’t have a lot of evidence of what was performed to begin with.
“I think the goal is always – if you’ll excuse the metaphor – liposuction and not amputation. The idea is that we look at the play and we try to present all of its richness, all of the story, all of the plot, but we streamline it in a way that an audience doesn’t get lost in some of the minutiae, the details. And secondly, the whole play is intact. All of the iconic pieces of the play are still there. You would have to be a real scholar of the piece to know what’s missing.”
Of Shakespeare’s early plays, Richard II has some of the richest language, unusually so for a history play. “This is a unique play, especially among the histories, because it’s fully in blank verse,” notes Trucks. “So it’s very poetic, where you would think the opposite of a lot of the histories. This one flows very musically. But what I am more interested in, this is the first play where we see hints of Shakespeare’s introspective, philosophical poetry, which we ultimately get with Hamlet or Falstaff, characters like that. This is the first time that a character sits down and waxes poetic about what’s going on in their own mind. There’s lots of parallels between this one and Hamlet.”
Why come see this Richard II? “Histories from Shakespeare rarely get done, and this is one of the most beautiful and tragic,” responds Trucks. “And extremely relevant for today. It has some of the most heartbreaking, eloquent soliloquys that you will ever hear and you rarely do hear them onstage, because it’s a history.”
RICHARD II, Palm Beach Shakespeare Festival. Carlin Park Seabreeze Amphitheater, A1A & Indiantown Rd., Jupiter, July 7-17. Commons Park Amphitheater, 11600 Poinciana Blvd., Royal Palm Beach, July 21-24. Admission free, suggested donation $5 per person. 561-762-8552.