He’s not the hunchback. And he doesn’t talk about “the winter of our discontent” (though we can all relate to that this year).
No, Richard II came several English monarchs before the monstrous but more famous Richard III. Still, he’s an interesting character in his own right, especially in Shakespeare’s version, believed to have been written in 1595, several years after the creation of Richard III.
“Whenever people hear that we’re doing Richard II," says Intrepid Shakespeare Company founding artistic director Sean Cox, who plays the titular King, “they say, ‘Oh, the hunchback!’ 'No,' I explain, 'this is the beginning. That’s the end.'”
Cox means the end of Shakespeare’s series of historical plays. Intrepid, Encinitas’ only professional resident theater company, is dedicated to presenting the entire cycle in historically-accurate order. So, following in the footsteps of last year’s King John, along comes Richard II.
The real Richard ruled from 1377-1399, actually ascending the throne at the tender age of 10. The play focuses on the adult king and his first cousin, Henry Bolingbroke (later to become King Henry IV, who is featured in two Shakespeare works—Henry IV, Part I and Part II). The cousins’ relentless competition for power leads to the downfall of both.
“It’s not produced very often,” says Cox of Richard II. “Not many of the histories are. But they’re fantastic. To me, seeing them out of order is like going to the last Lord of the Rings without seeing the first. They do stand on their own, of course. But the experience is far richer if you know what preceded it.”
“It’s like Dynasty,” says Christy Yael, Intrepid co-founder and CEO, Cox’s new bride, and the director of Richard II. “It’s really a great, big soap opera.”
“I’m always surprised, especially with the history plays, how very modern and contemporary they are," Cox says. "What Richard II did, squandering the country’s money, being contemptuous of the public, and having the people revolt, it’s what’s going on in the Middle East today.”
“At the crux of the play is Richard’s assertion of divine right,” explains Yael.
Bolingbroke argues that it’s not just bloodline, as Richard insists, but also intellect and political savvy that contribute to the making of a good king.
In tackling that argument, and the high-stakes political and personal competition in the play, Intrepid promises “a raw and breathless drama” in a modern adaptation. Shakespeare and Old Globe veteran actor and teacher Jonathan McMurtry has also served as the play's textual advisor.
“We’ve edited it down to a fast-paced two hours, presented with contemporary costumes and contemporary music," says Yael. "The language is quite accessible.”
“I love the character of Richard,” says Cox. “There’s psychological complexity that you don’t see in some of Shakespeare’s earliest plays. I love the fact that, even though he’s King and does all the wrong things, he’s likable. We begin to feel bad for him. And at the end of the play, he redeems himself. He’s lost his kingdom but gained his soul.
“These cousins fight for the crown and struggle with their own demons,” Cox says. “Ultimately, neither achieves what he thinks will make him happy. The story is complex, intimate and personal—a family drama combined with some of the best writing ever.”
“It’s a history, but it’s also tragic," says Yael. "In the end, Richard finds redemption, but Bolingbroke is plagued with guilt for the rest of his life. In Henry IV, when he's center stage, he says, ‘Heavy is the head that wears the crown.’ In other words, Be careful what you wish for.”
As Richard memorably sums it all up, “I wasted time, and now doth time waste me.”
Richard II begins previews Feb. 25 and runs Feb. 27 through March 20 at the Roundabout Theatre on the campus of San Dieguito Academy at 800 Santa Fe Dr.
Performances are: Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.
Tickets ($10-25) are available at 760-652-5011 or intrepidshakespeare.com.