Audiences seeing Richard II will wonder why it’s not presented more often because this production works so well. The common wisdom is that Richard II is more about head than heart. Shakespeare’s other histories are full of glory and combat, whereas this play focuses on a king whose weakness leads to his downfall. (This production launches a sequence of CSC productions following the chronology of the kings, a feat no other theater company in the U.S. has achieved.)
Shakespeare’s script is entirely poetic, all in blank or rhymed verse.
That might be a liability in some productions, but handled by CSC’s company of adept actors and with Brian Phillips firm directorial hand that always gives a high priority to the power of language, the show is a feast of glorious, evocative language.
That’s also a credit to Brent Vimtrup who uses Shakespeare’s poetry to open a window into the soul of the man. We meet Richard as a foppish young ruler surrounded by giggling sycophants. When he dismissively banishes the fiery Earl of Hereford, Henry Bolingbroke, he launches a chain of events that sets the course for a century of contention around the throne. Bolingbroke, the king’s fierce cousin (played with ebullience by Jim Hopkins), doesn’t need much encouragement to take up the crown (as Henry IV) when it slips from Richard’s feeble grasp.
Vimtrup’s portrait of Richard is subtly engaging: We watch him come apart at the seams as he realizes his supposedly God-given powers are not enough. When Richard petulantly relinquishes power, Vimtrup signals the change by casting aside his wig of coppery curls (matching the framed portrait of the boyish, richly dressed Richard that’s center stage at the show’s beginning) and he suddenly becomes a frail, all-too-human everyman, weak, hairless and overcome by doubt. “I wasted time,” he bemoans, “and now doth time waste me.”
Opening night was another sold-out performance at CSC, which is having a season of successful productions. Richard II sustains the momentum.
RICHARD II, presented by Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, continues through Feb. 3.