This past weekend in the Weitz theater, Jo Bartkovitch ’20 presented their comps production of the Shakespearean history Richard II. The play, which traces the end of King Richard’s (Jo Bartkovitch) reign and the ascension of King Henry IV (Sharan Ganjam Seshachallam ’20), is concerned with themes such as divine right, the relationship of power and responsibility, and loyalty to family and state.
There’s a moment towards the beginning of the second half of the play when Richard, returning to his country to find himself powerless and facing certain defeat, laments that: “within the hollow crown/That rounds the mortal temples of the king/Keeps Death his court, and there the antic sits.”
The idea that power constraints are one of the most central themes of the play, and the way in which this was made visible by the set, a throne surrounded by four concentric circles of different materials, was perhaps the most impressive part of the production. The outermost circle, a thin copper chain, represented the world of the play, the only thing existing outside of it being the coffin of the Duke of Gloucester, whose murder set the events onstage in motion, and whose death hung like a spectre over the entirety of the play.
Next came a strip of blue plastic, making real the waters surrounding the Isle of Great Britain, the borders of the kingdom. The last two circles were a thin line of string and a chain of gold, the latter symbolizing the weight and allure of power and the former the flimsiness of the distinction between a king and a subject. Given the minimalism of the set, the layers of meaning with which it was packed would have been enough to impress me, but the kicker came when the king would sit down in the throne. Suddenly there was a fifth circle, the heaviest, most constraining, and most important of all: the crown.
Bartkovitch’s portrayal of Richard was also quite impressive, especially so in the latter half of the production when, in Richard’s fallen state, the seams in his mental state really began to show themselves. Other standouts included Sharan Ganjam Seshachallam as Henry, Jamie North ’21 as John of Gaunt and Bryce Bern ’20 as Sir Thomas Mowbray.
The play’s greatest difficulty was dealing with the production’s departure of Richard’s queen. Because most of her part was given to the gardener character, the most thematically important of her lines were kept; but by giving the doting lines of the queen to a common man, it made it seem like the opinion of the public towards Richard was more positive than in the original text, which did not fit quite as well with Richard’s beggaring of the realm (to give you some idea of how much people hated him, Richard was the inspiration for Joffrey in Game of Thrones).
Some other problems included the strangeness of seeing John of Gaunt getting drunk on his deathbed, the giving away of some of Richard’s early lines, weakening his characterization, and the cutting of the assassination attempt on Henry, making less clear the parallels between the two kings.
Given the difficulties brought on by the small cast, the seven-week practice schedule and the departure of a central cast member, that Bartkovich’s Richard II succeeded as much as it did was a testament to the ambition, talent and ingenuity of the director and cast. I would gladly recommend this production to any lover of Shakespeare, history or student theater.