Jessica Kubzansky is a Shakespearean detective. More like a forensic scientist, or a coroner who performs an autopsy with precision and artistry, searching for the true cause of death. Kubzansky will take a Shakespearean play and dissect it until she finds the real, gritty motivations that drive the characters’ actions. In her recent production of Macbeth with Antaeus, she dug into an often overlooked line of Lady M’s and presented the couple’s grief stemming from the loss of their infant child.
In RII, Kubzansky pays tribute to The Bard by respecting the importance Shakespeare placed on the power of words, letting his words influence everything from casting to set design.
In the opening scene of the play, we are introduced to the three actors who will unfold Richard’s story before our eyes. Richard says:
“My brain I’ll prove the female to my soul, / My soul the father, and these two beget / A generation of still-breeding thoughts; / And these same thoughts people this little world,” (Shakespeare, Richard II. Act V, Scene 5, lines 6-9).
And so enter a woman and a gentleman who is older than Richard – a female and a father. And these three actors play all the roles in this play, which originally contains 20+ characters. But as Richard says, “Thus play I in one person many people,” (V.5.31), so the brilliant, bold and risky casting decision to cast only three people – and what great people! – proves greatly effective. The relationships, interplay, and role reversals the three-person cast creates is fascinating and poetic, especially with the talented John Sloan, Paige Lindsey White, and Jim Ortlieb making each character unique.
Now, what’s important to note is that in the original play Richard’s soliloquy takes place in Act 5, but Kubzansky has honed in on these words, setting the play inside Richard’s head, allowing Shakespeare’s words to literally take to the stage.
Thus, if Richard’s head is the setting, his words become the landmarks that establish the setting. So words become part of the set design –the letters forming ambiguous shapes in different scenes. For instance, in a scene at court, words are projected in the background, arranged in shapes that make them seem at once like arrows pointing downward, or a crown, or a crenelated wall. Then, when the letters form long, vertical lines that imprison Richard, they look not only like cell bars, but swords, claws, gashes.
By zeroing in on Shakespeare’s words and allowing them to guide such decisions, Kubzansky couldn’t have paid a most honest homage to the playwright, for the power of words is a recurring theme in Shakespeare’s body of work. The worst thing that can happen to you in a Shakespeare play is to get cursed because that foul string of insults Shakespeare became so famous for is certain to become an incantation that will lead you to certain death. Our famous star-crossed lovers are an excellent example, as the invoked “plague that falls on both their houses” leads to the untimely death of our reckless teenagers, Romeo and Juliet. Of course, the famous “What’s in a name?” line also points to the power of words, as it calls into question the notion of identity and how much of it is determined by one’s name, by one’s birth. In RII, the notion of identity is all the more important, as Richard’s identity as the anointed king is called into question when his crown is threatened.
When you see RII, mark the number of times the word “tongue” is used. The tongue – the weapon of the flatterer – is a trope that comes up repeatedly throughout the play as Richard learns how his identity can be undone by words alone. Note as well the use of the “royal we,:” or majestic plural, as it’s formally called. Richard – speaking on behalf of himself (the king), his subjects, and God – tends to speak in “we,” and it’s immensely revealing when he chooses to refer to himself in the first person singular (I), or even third person (he).
When does Richard end, and when does the King begin?