King Richard II summons the rival Lords, Henry Bolingbroke and Thomas Mowbray, to his court so that they may make public their accusations against one another and settle their dispute through trial by combat. As the fight is about to begin, however, the King stops the contest, banishing Mowbray for life and Bolingbroke for six years. John of Gaunt, Bolingbroke's father, becomes increasingly ill in his son's absence. He summons Richard to his deathbed and reproves him for his extravagance, the mortgaging out of the realm, and his probable complicity in the death of the Duke of Gloucester. The King is infuriated by the charges, and upon Gaunt's death, seizes his lands in order to fund his Irish campaign. Bolingbroke, who has returned from exile to claim these rights and titles, executes the King's confidantes and amasses an army. This prompts Richard, whose own forces have dispersed during his absence in Ireland, to seek refuge in Flint Castle. There, Richard submits himself to Bolingbroke and is taken as a prisoner to London. Before Parliament, Richard is forced to sign a confession of his supposed crimes against the state. He then deposes himself, yielding the crown to Bolingbroke, who takes the title of King Henry IV. After a brief imprisonment in the Tower of London and a sorrowful separation from his French queen, Richard is finally sent to Pomfret Castle, where he laments all that he has lost and awaits his fate.
In essence, Richard II may be less a history play than a tragedy. While the events it depicts lay the seeds of dissent for the subsequent War of the Roses, the action is more concerned with character and conceptions of the self, than with battles and pageantry. It is, in many ways, an existential drama, exploring a basic human dilemma: is truth to be found in the external trappings of who we are at any given moment, or in the stark reality of what we are when deprived of ornamentation and rank?
Working from the premise that Richard II is more than a strictly "historical" drama, director James Symons allows the play's central human dilemma to dictate its manner of staging. The depiction of Richard's separation from his crown and royal persona--and the implicit corollary of mankind being stripped of all pretenses--is enacted on a stage which has itself been stripped to the bone. Scene designer David Barber establishes locale with a few strategically placed platforms, scaffolds and furniture pieces, allowing each scene to move fluidly into the next. Characters move in and out of Richard Devin's strong pools of light, while Kevin Dunayer's environmental score provides an ambiance for the nearly bare stage. Costumes, created by Janice Benning, reinforce the central transformation against this stark backdrop: lavish, ceremonial robes give way to the austere simplicity of prison attire, as Richard II's wardrobe undergoes the same distillation as his understanding of his own humanity. While never forgetting the historical epoch in which these events took place, Symons has chosen to distance the production from an archeological reproduction of the medieval world (England c.1400), preferring instead a stylization and simplicity of line and color that is reminiscent of that era, yet also indicative of today's minimalist aesthetic. This "theatricalized medieval industrial" approach thus spans the distance between the actual events and the present, allowing us to view the deconstruction of the royal "we" and the resulting emergence of the naked "I" in a self-consciously theatrical space that underscores the play's central conflict. Gradually deprived of the trappings of the throne, Richard must ultimately come to terms with who and what he is in a space that reflects the psychological and emotional tenor of his plight. And it is this reduction and revelation of the fundamental self which makes this play and this production not merely "historical," but thoroughly modern.