The Stratford Festival cannot be lauded for great Shakespeare this season (with the exception of William Hutt’s magnificent rendering of Prospero in “The Tempest”), but its production of “Richard II” does showcase the company’s strengths more than its weaknesses.
Part of Stratford’s problem is its size (now the largest repertory company in North America) and actors often complain they feel isolated, a condition that occasionally infects their work. But not here.
Martha Henry, one of the fest’s leading actors and directing Shakespeare here for the first time, has pulled together a true ensemble with a group energy and focus that results in an engaging, often beautiful and satisfying production.
The generosity of spirit between performers and director is evident in tiny moments — John of Gaunt tenderly tying Bolingbroke’s cape for him, the touches between young Queen Anne and Richard that signify friendship rather than passion , and even the homoerotic overtones when Richard rests his head in Bushy’s lap.
They indicate a director who imprints her material with a point of view, but who does so lightly.
Perhaps her biggest achievement is in creating a sense of consistency in the verse speaking, though in reality the ability to handle it varies greatly among the cast. There are simply not enough good voices available for the number of productions being staged here and in this large cast there are maybe a half dozen actors up to the challenge.
Chief among them is Geordie Johnson, who has cut his teeth on Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller at the fest and who is now moving on to the Bard’s great tragedies as Richard. His voice is not so much rich as textured, and his experience playing weak men serves him well.
Dissolute and irresolute, his Richard nevertheless has dignity and majesty, which allows for a poignant exploration of his downfall.
There are places where technique flattens spontaneity and others where the lengthy unbroken poetic passages demand more depth than they receive, but Johnson’s charisma and honesty mostly take him over the rough spots and preserve the power of Shakespeare’s language.
John Dolan travels another road entirely, bringing a pragmatic, almost peasant-like solidness to Bolingbroke; while it contrasts nicely with Richard’s haughtiness it does little to establish the force of personality that would make the public shift alliances from their rightful king to a usurper.
But then this is not a production of stellar turns, it is rather a cohesive unit in which all the parts blend smoothly. Astrid Janson’s set makes the most of the long thrusting arm of the Tom Patterson Theater with a simple, elegant marble slab center-stage accented by moving, transparent scrims, while Louise Guinand’s lighting keeps the visual focus tight. Allan Wilbee’s costumes are gloriously unfussy and hint at time travel without losing their medieval flavor, while an evocative and effective sound score by Todd Charlton soothes emotional storms with Gregorian chants.