The Public Theater’s storied Free Shakespeare in the Park program is such a beloved summer institution, audiences might be wary of tuning into this year’s pandemic-era iteration: a radio play adaptation of “Richard II,” conceived and directed by Saheem Ali. But under the proper conditions (a quiet room, no small children or pets underfoot), this WNYC/Public Theater production of “Richard II” exerts unexpected, eerie power.
Of all the chronicle plays, this one is the most static. More psychological tragedy than historical spectacle, “Richard II” also prefigures “Hamlet” in its meditative moments. And while Hamlet is dramatic literature’s most famous procrastinator, King Richard could still teach him a thing or two about dilly-dallying.
The story is a study in stalling. Instead of immediately doling out fair and equal punishment to squabbling nobles Thomas Mowbray (Sanjit De Silva) and Henry Bolingbroke (Miriam A. Hyman), King Richard II (Andre Holland, in beautiful voice) sends both lords into banishment for lengthy but unequal periods of time.
That’s only his first mistake. Rejecting the counsel of wise elders, the flighty king dotes on sycophants and flatterers. His most grievous mistake, though, is seizing the property of the late John of Gaunt (Dakin Matthews), instead of allowing Gaunt’s son Bolingbroke (Miriam A. Hyman) to claim his rightful inheritance. In that single stroke, Richard earns the animosity of every noble (and every noble’s son) in England.
But that’s Richard for you — impetuous, thoughtless, and altogether unworthy of his crown. It isn’t until the end of the play, after suffering for his sins and stupidity, that Richard rises to his noble station. At which point, speech after gorgeous speech flow from his mouth, from his very soul.
Every Shakespearean actor alive yearns to speak these lines of poetry. Over the radio, Holland speaks them in impressive voice and in the cadences of pure poetry. The voice of Bolingbroke, his cousin and rival, is the voice of a woman, Hyman, which gives yet more texture to these vocal duels.
Listening in the dark, we come to divine the character of these voices: John Douglas Thompson’s plummy Duke of York; Stephen McKinley Henderson’s chuckling gardener; Estelle Parsons and Phylicia Rashad’s duchesses of York and Gloucester, respectively. It’s rather a thrill to identify these distinctive voices.
The voice acting isn’t always so sharply distinguishing. But Holland, to be sure, safeguards the purity of his voice for those devastating monologues at the end of the play when Richard, in disgrace and defeat, at last rises to the dignity of his office — and the poetry of the play — before he dies.