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REVIEW: Richard II brilliantly reimagined for Stratford

In spite of his obvious flaws, the 2023 version of Richard is transformed by Stephen Jackman-Torkoff into an emotionally distraught, defeated ruler near the end of his life and a man worthy of at least some sympathy
Stephen Jackman-Torkoff (centre) as King Richard II with members of the company in Richard II.

Bejewelled uninhibited bodies uniformly swirl and gyrate about on Studio 54’s spacious dance floor to the pulsating sounds of disco music, while from surrounding angelic figures a tall, lean, regal young man emerges in glittery splendour waiting for the crown to be placed upon his head.

A violent New York City in the late 1970s and early 80s, corrupted by fears of looming bankruptcy brought on by economic stagnation, literally blanketed by darkness in a massive power outage on July 13, 1977, may not seem an ideal setting to relocate Shakespeare’s 14th century Richard II.

Yet, that did nothing to deter acclaimed playwright and screenwriter Brad Fraser.

So, after the anticipated pre-production chatter had subsided, his daring adaptation of the wildly self-indulgent man-child monarch arrived at the Tom Patterson Theatre in all its untamed grandeur, in a revitalized era of disco, amidst raucous shouts of awe.

Boldly conceived and directed with confidence by Jillian Keiley, the transfer to another century nonetheless left the concept intact, in large part because both eras were victimized by continuous socio-political upheaval and disorder and there wisely was nary a mention of the Big Apple.

The essence of Shakespeare’s first of four plays about the House of Lancaster remained intact, albeit with hints of cleverly inserted allusions to a more present time courtesy of both the adaptor and director. 

A dispute between Henry Bolingbroke (Jordin Hall), the son of John of Gaunt (David Collins) and Thomas Mowbray, the Duke of Norfolk (Tyrone Savage) is to be settled by a tournament that is quickly interrupted by the king who banishes both combatants from England. 

Richard II (Stephan Jackman-Torkoff) seizes John of Gaunt’s land and money to fund his ill-fated war in Ireland. The story descends into political turmoil perpetuated by the two camps supporting either the reigning monarch or the defiant Bolingbroke.  

In addition, during his time and to this day, the carefree Richard’s sexuality has been questioned. A complex figure, he was in love with the trappings of royalty yet seemingly disinterested in or incapable of developing and using military options to help him maintain his shaky grip on power.

Bolingbroke, later to become Henry IV, is unquestionably on the extreme opposite side of the spectrum – tactful, intuitive, honest, pragmatic, and willing to act immediately either by force or persuasion when confronted by a rebellious opponent. Hall plays the role to perfection.

Dressed in plain, office-like attire more befitting a businessman than a flashy disco king who continuously flaunts his eye-popping costumes and flashy bling, Jordin Hall captures all these down to earth traits, adding touches of genuine personal thoughtfulness with his no-nonsense, solid-as-a-rock, and well-executed portrayal of a traditional monarch. While formidable he is still approachable.

Jackman-Torkoff’s Richard, as seen by Fraser as a king who believes he has the God-given right to live above the law, owns every inch of the accommodating and effectively designed Patterson stage, proudly strutting about one moment, only to shrivel seconds later into a shattered and demoralized man designed to meet his fate in a crumpled, lonely heap. 

In spite of his obvious flaws, the 2023 version of Richard is transformed by Jackman-Torkoff into an emotionally distraught, defeated ruler near the end of his life and a man worthy of at least some sympathy. 

Much attention focuses on the look and feel of the production courtesy of:

  • The scintillating choreographic direction from Cameron Carver.
  • Imaginative set designs by Michael Gianfrancesco.
  • Leigh Ann Vardy’s intense lighting.
  • Eye-catching designs from Bretta Gerecke.
  • Musical ebbs and flows from Rhapsodius. 
  • Attention to sound requirements by Don Ellis.
  • Realistic fight sequences directed by Geoff Scovell.

Jackman-Torkoff, who debuted at last year’s festival as Smash in Every Little Nookie and John Brooke in Little Women, had three or more costume changes in their audition for the role. Assisting Gerecke, they also brought their personal style and exploration of the character's style to rehearsal by bringing items from home.

The play’s landscape reveals numerous beautifully etched performances from Emilio Vieira as Richard’s remarkably close cousin/bath buddy the Duke of Aumerle; Sarah Orenstein’s strong and devious Bolingbroke supporter the Countess of Northumberland and two menacing well-suited heavies Lord Ross (Matthew Kabwe) and Charlie Gallant’s Lord Willoughby who gradually dies from an unknown disease, in an agonizingly painful approach.   

As John of Gaunt, Bolingbroke’s father, Collins is true to form, handling the ever-changing tone of his text with dexterity. In the opening scenes he appears little more than another one of Richard’s flatterers who has little difficulty in dismissing his misdeeds, even the heinous act of participating in the murder of Thomas of Woodstock.

Yet, as the play progresses with his son’s rapidly growing populist movement to oust the monarch, he becomes a relevant central figure supporting the rebellion Bolingbroke has launched. 

His altered decision making and particularly his explicit death sequence stunningly orchestrated for dramatic effect decidedly rendered audience members gasping for breath simply watching his painful last few moments of life.

While numerous Shakespearean outings employ a proverbial chorus as a narrative guide for situational changes and plot progression, Keiley and Fraser introduce a 15-member elaborately-costumed and appropriately winged Angel Army that regularly heightens and enhances the actions of both antagonists and protagonists.

In her notes, The Power of Angels, Keiley explains the production was inspired by the Wilton Diptych painting, commissioned by a then 28-year-old Richard who requested he be captured at an age of about 14, when he awakened to his God-given position in the world.

“Unfortunately for the Richard of our production, the angels didn’t represent the interests of God but instead the manifestation of power itself,” she said. “They boldly follow his thrilling charisma, his beauty, and his wit.

“They also follow his unchecked vanity – a hollow fortress built with fawning praise. Richard’s flashes of inspiration, his boldness, confidence, and ecstatic joy all felt Godsent. What our Richard learns is that these feelings were not the light of God but rather a manifestation of Richard’s belief in himself.”

Careful consideration to the opulent nature of the era and the flamboyance of the inhabitants is a mark of how successful the play is in terms of direction and even more importantly that sense of its own time and space.

While the 2023 version of Richard II is an aesthetically pleasing transformation and radically altered in appearance and sound from previous interpretations, it never stoops to the level of favouring style over substance, remaining unwaveringly faithful to the bard’s text and ultimate messages.

For many the question remains: is there is a need to continuously adapt Shakespeare’s works over the years and even centuries. In a 2015 article entitled What makes Shakespeare endlessly adaptable? Professor Michael Dodson explained why Shakespeare manages to be simultaneously historical and contemporary:

“All producers of Shakespeare’s plays have to be adaptors; to some extent they have been since the beginning. Shakespeare’s scripts always had to be shortened for performance, even in his own time. Fifty years after his death, theatres with perspective scenery replaced the open innyard-style playhouses for which he wrote, so that scenes had to be transposed and designs added. Fashions were updated too.

“As with translation, there is a choice: directors might present a Shakespeare play as if it were a vivid and exotic souvenir from the time and place where it was first performed; or they might prefer to naturalize it, to make it look as though it is a brand-new play in a modern idiom; or they might prefer to set it somewhere else entirely. Each has its potential disadvantages, but the plays will lend themselves successfully to each.”

So, by eschewing the expected solemnity and regality traditionally associated with the British monarchy, Keiley, Fraser, a vibrant acting company, innovative artistic directors, and consultants have created a pulsating, provocative and stunningly visual Richard II that continues until September 28 at the Tom Patterson Theatre.

It remains within the audience’s minds to either embrace or question such a vital, forceful, and magically thought-provoking theatrical enterprise and even a Richard II reminiscent of Little Richard’s keen fashion sense.