Walter Pater once wrote, “Shakespeare’s kings are not, nor are meant to be, great men,” something that is deeply understood by director J.R. Sullivan in his new production of Richard II at the Pearl Theatre. Sean McNall, playing the title role, presents both a physically and politically diminutive figure: slim, pale, and sickly looking—a kind of deflated Peter Lorre—this “landlord of England” spends most of the play looking up at actors nearly a head taller than him. His Richard is squeamish, non-committal, and totally incapable of controlling his subjects; as we watch him fight a losing battle to maintain a regal demeanor, we wonder if he ever really wanted to be king in the first place.
But while Sullivan and his cast and crew skillfully handle the material, the play itself is rather uneven. Apart from Richard, almost all the other characters are disposable; he hogs all the great lines and all the great beats but is surprisingly absent for a play that carries his name. The scenes involving Bolingbroke—played by Grant Goodman as a bleached-haired populist whose appearance recalls Branagh’s Hamlet—take up more time than we might like, and excepting a brief allusion to Shakespeare’s great, later invention Falstaff (one of the “loose companions” Prince Hal is associating with in the taverns of London), his dialogue doesn’t carry much interest.
Still, when Mr. McNall is onstage, he is stellar. Willingness to play such an utter loser is often the mark of brave and talented actor (think of John Cazale’s five great roles), and this Richard does not make any attempt to justify himself to his audience. His final monologue before his assassination—“Thus play I in one person many people, / And none contented”—is beautifully and wrenchingly delivered, the word contented a sobering foreshadowing of Shylock’s final, ironic line; with a single spotlight illuminating this fallen man, it is no wonder that Harold Bloom considered the character a kind of proto-Hamlet. He is too thoughtful and too poetic for his power, and though we never quite feel sympathetic, he does evoke pity. Sullivan has indeed heeded his call, “Tell thou the lamentable tale of me / And send the hearers weeping to their beds” as best he can.
In its first two productions of the season, The Pearl Theatre has proved an excellent company with an intelligent dedication to the classics. Their Richard II runs so smoothly we forget that this play is packed with so many scenes and locations that it could easily bog down a lesser group. In between scenes, a stained-glass emblem of a lion is projected onto the corner of the stage, a painful reminder that this one does not live up to the name of his predecessor. In its final moments, however, the new monarch Henry IV stares at the image after confessing, “Though I did wish him dead, / I hate the murderer, love him murderèd.” He will not forget poor Richard II, and neither will we.