You might know that Shakespeare’s Richard III focuses on one of his great villains. But among his 38 plays, there’s also Richard II. You probably know almost nothing about this guy — a weak king, deposed in 1399 — who died in captivity in 1400. These events were the catalyst for England’s War of the Roses, destabilizing England for much of the 15th century — and providing the foundation for Shakespeare’s better known history plays, Henry IV, V and VI.
But the second Richard was just two centuries before Shakespeare’s era, only slightly more distant than the American Revolution from us today. So audiences in Elizabethan London knew of him and his cousin Henry Bolingbroke, the Duke of Hereford who became Henry IV. Richard’s demise was the subject of several plays in the 1590s.
Those works are largely forgotten, and Richard II is infrequently presented today, so its upcoming production by Cincinnati Shakespeare Company (Jan. 11-Feb. 3) is particularly noteworthy. (The only time I’ve seen the work was in 2002 by the now extinct Stage First Cincinnati.) It’s also noteworthy because it’s one of only two works by Shakespeare yet to be staged by CSC.
Actor Brent Vimtrup is playing Richard this month. We talked after a draining 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. rehearsal a few days after Christmas. “Richard II is an arduous task, and no one in our company has done it before.” But he’s excited to take on the role: “It’s really a beautiful, beautiful play — some of the best language that I’ve ever had the opportunity to speak.” In fact, Richard II is Shakespeare’s only play entirely in verse — the script contains not one word of unmetered prose.
(Director Brian Isaac Phillips has trimmed it down to a manageable two hours for contemporary audiences.)
Vimtrup suspects it’s less often produced because there’s very little action — “no swordfights, no big battles.” But Richard’s downfall, he says, flows like an episode of The West Wing, rapidly clipping through scenes with just three or four characters.
The play reflects the details of Richard’s ineffective monarchy. But its real focus, according to Vimtrup, is “the downfall of Richard and his very human character. He was born a king and he believes he should be on the throne, but he knows he’s not doing what he’s supposed to be able to do and he questions his own worth. Who doesn’t have those doubts?”
I asked Vimtrup why he would want to play a relatively unknown role. He joined the company two years ago (he’s originally from Cincinnati, but previously performed in New York City and regionally for more than a decade) because he wanted to work steadily. As a member of CSC acting company, he’s in a new production every month or six weeks. He recently played the witty role of Algernon Moncrief in CSC’s December offering, The Importance of Being Earnest.
Of Richard II, he says, “The play is known as the most lyrical of Shakespeare’s histories. I can’t say enough about the language — it’s just unbelievably beautiful. In terms of introspection, this play is on a level with Hamlet. This role is an opportunity and a challenge: It’s not like Hamlet or Macbeth, where many choices by an actor are already understood. With Richard II, we have to figure out what works and what doesn’t, in the moment. When it works, it works!”
He has a healthy fear of the role. “It kicks you in the butt and makes you work as hard as you possibly can. But no one in this production is resting on their laurels. We’re all working to put up the best show we can.” Although Richard II is rarely staged, Vimtrup says it’s not presented just to check it off the list. “Everyone likes the show — it’s really challenging.”
One of the reasons he’s an actor is his love of language. “When I was playing Algy [in The Importance of Being Earnest], I was thinking that Wilde was such an amazing playwright. That happens with Shakespeare in this play. That’s part of why I’m an actor: I get to say someone else’s words, and the language in this one is so unbelievably poetic.”
Vimtrup is excited for audiences to see Richard II. “I hope they come away thinking they’ve seen a man — a king, nonetheless — who has been truly humbled. I don’t mean that in any showy or melodramatic way. By the end of the play, you get to see who Richard really is — as a human being.”
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