By James Foritano
Cambridge, Mass. – As usual, the Actors’ Shakespeare Project performed brilliantly on the stage of the Central Square YMCA in the current production of Richard II during its Feb. 21 performance.
The house was fortuitously configured so that villains could be spotlighted in high places performing dastardly deeds like the strangulation, in his sleep, of the noble Gloucester. And soldiers, courtiers, priests and nobles could thread themselves though the aisles of the audience breathing hot revenge, sorrow, despair and other mightily theatrical emotions.
For me, both in his acting and in his pivotal role in the action, the star was Robert Walsh’s Duke of York. The Duke’s role was to salvage not only Richard II’s throne and kingdom, but the very sanctity and awe of kingship. In the case of Richard, such a rescue mission was bound to fail.
Being king in medieval England was all about ‘fair succession’ — i.e. you succeeded your God-appointed dad and your son succeeded you. This ‘fair succession’ extended to the hierarchy of your loyal nobles and faithful priests, as well, ideally as the ‘little people’ of your flock upon whose labor in the fields and towns everyone’s wealth much depended.
Richard II had probably heard this theory somewhere, but he either didn’t get it, or adamantly did not want to hear it again. Kingship for Richard was all about plucking the lowest hanging fruit, whether that was the lands and wealth of a recently deceased noble kinsman, or just a particularly good harvest that could either save a score of towns from famine or clothe and arm one of your many military adventures abroad.
The Duke of York, played by Robert Walsh, was the royal ‘clean-up’ man. As the play opens, Richard impatiently banishes two powerful nobles intent on saving their honor in a duel. Inconveniently, the quarrel that led them to this point has dark beginnings in one of Richard’s irresponsible moves to capture the wealth by ‘offing’ the noble owner of some considerable riches.
Everybody who is still anybody in Richard’s Kingdom realizes, logically, that they are all now ‘low hanging’ fruit’ and mass together under the banner of one of the returning banished nobles, Bolingbroke, as played by Michael Forden Walker.
Walker’s Bolingbroke spits fire and Henry’s kingdom is all tinder just waiting to be ignited. Which side would you join?
The Duke of York, loyal to a fault, tries to persuade the aggrieved that ‘in theory,’ Richard, barefaced robber that he is, is still king. This time, in a delicious turn-a-bout, Richard’s nobles don’t ‘get it,’ just as he never ‘got’ them. Even the ‘lowest’ farmer and tradesperson in Richard’s despoiled kingdom is eager to join the ranks of rebels to hit out at the king’s dwindling army with pike, scythe or shovel.
York’s features twist in an agony of frustration, his limbs, knotted already with advancing age, creak with the impossibility of moving with pity or reason the enmity that King Richard’s bone-headed greed has sharpened to a deadly edge.
York’s attempt to parley with the army gathered around the aggrieved Bolingbroke ends, of course, in failure. In a last move, desperate to gain time and perhaps a bit of mercy, York invites the rebel leaders into his castle to rest up for the night.
And so, the tragedy of Richard II rests for a moment in a depth of black comedy. Richard’s rebellious kingdom, refreshed after a night of dreamless sleep in the castle of one of his last loyal allies, rises in the morning, and, after toying with the hapless royal for a decorous time, puts an end to his agony with one of the many treacherous stratagems that Richard himself gave rich example of to his subjects, i.e. if you are powerful you don’t have to do a ‘dirty deed’ yourself, just suggest that it ‘wants doing.’ Wink…wink.
If you go to Richard II looking for tragedy, you have to change your focus from Richard himself, who is not, in this reviewer’s opinion, a flawed man, but a flaw looking for a man, half-heartedly, at that, to Richard’s kingdom. It’s in the last few adherents of the idea of kingship as a bundle of arduous and sacred obligations, and very little selfish satisfaction, that we find some nobility to admire.
Michael Forden Walker’s ‘Henry Bolingbroke’ and Lewis D. Wheeler’s ‘Thomas Mowbray’ are would-be duelists aspiring valiantly for some honor in a kingdom without honor. The much tested and tried Robert Walsh’s ‘Duke of York’ could be any one of our modern day political lieutenants stoutly defending the last bit of value in the regime while their boss is out at a two-martini lunch fiddling while Rome burns.
Malcolm Ingram as the ‘Head Gardener’ has the last say as he plants some rue in the royal garden then commands his assistant to lop off the limbs of their heavily overgrown ‘kingdom’ and hope for a better spring.
(Actor’s Shakespeare Project’s production of “Richard II” continues through March 13 at the Cambridge YMCA, 820 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, Mass. For more information and tickets, visit actorsshakespeareproject.org.)