There were several solid performances: Phylicia Rashad, as the grieving Duchess of Gloucester, revealing an almost physical grief; Dakin Matthews, chewing on John of Gaunt’s meaty dying speech; and Jacob Ming-Trent, with the arresting energy of a preacher at a pulpit as Carlisle.
Sean Carvajal, in one of the more idiosyncratic performances, wore his Shakespeare like a pair of comfortable sweats, almost subversively contemporary. As Surrey, he trilled his tongue daringly as he threw down a gage; as a gossiping gardener, he exclaimed a comical “Whaaaaaaaat? Think you the King shall be deposed?”
The star here, however, was our king, performed by Holland with creamy smoothness and remarkable grace. In one scene, when Richard returns to England after war, he presses his head to the earth and whispers lovingly to the land. Here it’s as if you were hearing Holland speak his sweet nothings in your ear, so intimate you could almost feel his breath against your cheek.
Even in the king’s scenes near collapse, Holland stayed composed, his voice reflexively decisive and self-assured. (There’s an irony here, as Holland comes off as too smart to be the ineffectual king we’re meant to see.)
In one interview segment, Ali described the play as a “long, slow, beautiful release of Richard’s humanity,” but it’s hard to square that with the production’s framing of Bolingbroke’s revolution as akin to Black Lives Matter protests. Shakespeare’s histories don’t sit so neatly in contemporary categories; one may see the king as a tragic hero, undone by his flaws, not just the misguided antagonist.
And Bolingbroke’s motives — whether he has always wanted the crown, whether he actually wanted Richard dead — are unclear. In one especially expert line reading, during Richard’s brutal deposition by Bolingbroke, Holland declared, “God save the King!” Silence hung heavily in the air. “Will no man say ‘Amen’?” he finally followed, so meekly it was shattering.