by Lynn on June 27, 2023

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford Festival, Stratford, Ont. Plays until September 28, 2023.

Written by William Shakespeare

Adapted by Brad Fraser

Conceived and directed by Jillian Keiley

Choreographer, Cameron Carver

Set by Michael Gianfrancesco

Costumes by Bretta Gerecke

Lighting by Leigh Ann Vardy

Composer, Rhapsodius

Sound by Don Ellis


David Collins

Sarah Dodd

Thomas Duplessie

Justine Eddy

Charlie Gallant

Jordan Hall

Stephen Jackman-Torkoff

Matthew Kabwe

Marcus Nance

Sarah Orenstein

Debbie Patterson

Andrew Robinson

Steve Ross

Tyrone Savage

Michael Spencer-Davis

Emilio Viera

John Wamsley

Hannah Wigglesworth

And many others.

A consistent, bold imagining of Shakespeare’s play of power, the dangers of hubris, court intrigue and love and a constant challenge to our perceptions of what a king looks and acts like.

The Story.  Richard II had been king since he was 11 years old, but was hidden away and overseen by advisors etc. When he was 14 years old, he actually quelled an uprising so from then on Richard II had the sense he was invincible. He played favourites at court.

In the play there are clashes between the house of Lancaster and York.  When Richard II is asked to deal with matters of court—settling a conflict between two courtiers, Henry Bolingbroke (the House of York) and Thomas Mowbray—things begin to go off the rails. Richard’s enemies begin to gather and challenge his rule. It goes from there.

The Production and comment. Richard II originally takes place in the 14th century in England but in Brad Fraser’s adaptation it’s been moved to New York in the 1970s and 80s. Richard II leads a hedonistic gay life of subversion and raunchy dancing parties that are a cross between the Met gala and Studio 54.

Because Richard II is played by Stephen Jackman-Torkoff, who is a Black actor, then Richard is Black, a further challenge of our perceptions of what a king looks and acts like.

The first and last image in the production is a crown held aloft. The first time Richard II wears the crown he makes his entrance in a wild white feathery outfit, followed by leather clad followers as if in some kind of hedonistic bar; a gay bar; a leather bar, use your imagination. Kudos to costume designer Bretta Gerecke, for creating costumes that reflect the schism in Richard’s court: his followers are leather clad, glitter-laden and flamboyant; the other courtiers are in tailored dark coloured suits that are subdued in hue and cut and convey a seriousness to the affairs of state.

The second time the crown is held aloft is at the end of the production, when Henry Bolingbroke’s (Jordin Hall) forces defeat Richard II to become king Henry IV. Again, the crown is held aloft and Henry is crowned.

But to get to that last scene, Richard II has to settle a dispute between Henry Bolingbroke Thomas Mowbray (Tyrone Savage) in which each man accuses the other of treason. They agree to a dual to settle their differences, but Richard II has other plans. Initially he has both men stripped of their shirts and oiled up as if it’s a homoerotic wrestling match as in Women in Love. Both men are startled by this, but then continue the fight.  In the end, Richard exiles both men anyway and thus begins his many problems of governance with court intrigues in abundance.

What Richard wants to do more than anything else is to go off with his cousin Lord Aumerle (Emilio Vieira) with whom he is in love. Matters of court and a war in Ireland prevent that.

Brad Fraser has adapted Shakespeare’s play and the result is bold, brash and daring. Brad Fraser has cut some speeches. The famous John of Gaunt death-bed speech about “this Royal throne of Kings, this sceptered isle…..this England” is cut. But Richard’s speech about “let’s sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings”… still there. So speeches about the majesty of England and nationalism are cut, but speeches that reflect Richard’s outlook and perception of his ruling remain.

Brad Fraser’s adaptation is liberal in borrowing speeches from other Shakespeare plays—Troilus and Cressida; the sonnets and my favourite line from Much Ado About Nothing is included here. Richard II says to Lord Aumerle; “I do love nothing in the world so well as you. Is that not strange.”  So yes, liberties are taken but this is a deliberate brash adaptation, conceived by director Jillian Keiley, and adapted by Brad Fraser, one of our most iconoclastic, perceptive playwrights, that turns Shakespeare’s play on its ear, but is still true to it, in its way.

Jillian Keiley’s production meets the adaptation in brashness, big time. It is also beautiful, vivid in its imagery and gripping in its intimacy.

Michael Gianfrancesco’s set is sleek and spare. Silver rectangles rise up from traps and are moved to form benches, borders and other formations of the set. In one instance the pieces are pushed together to create a sunken structure. Leather-clad characters on all sides of the structure stretch elastic sheets across the top of the formation. Richard II and Lord Aumerle appear up in between the sheets to the accompaniment of steam billowing up and the sound of water lapping. Voilà a hot tub. In this production Richard and Aumerle are lovers and their intimacy in the hot tub illuminates that love. The kissing is deep and passionate; there are suggestions of physical arousal beneath the water. As Aumerle, Emilio Vieira is as brash as Richard II in their relationship, but he is also conflicted. Aumerle comes from a political family and would know the choppy waters he is in both politically and emotionally with such an erratic, mercurial king.

Interestingly one is aware that there is no nudity. Both actors/characters wear briefs. Theatre is about illusion. In the hot tub there is the illusion of nudity. When they get out of the tub (there is no water, just the lapping sound), we are aware they are wearing tight briefs. The nudity would have taken us out of the illusion and put us in a jarring reality. The fact that they are wearing clothes does the same thing. The magic of theatre.

There are scenes with the other courtiers who are trying to keep a grip on their wild-acting king, and try and head off political disaster. For instance, Edmund, Duke of York and Aumerle’s father, is played by Michael Spencer-Davis wearing a trim fitting suit. Spencer-Davis adds a note of decorum, political savvy and a touch of exasperation at what is happening at court, with the free-wheeling king. The Duke of York’s even temper but occasionally clipped speech suggests a frustration at trying to keep things from exploding. Jordin Hall plays Bolingbroke, level-headed, clear-eyed and the complete opposite of Richard. He will get even with Richard for banishing him from the kingdom and cheating him of his father’s inheritance. Jordin Hall gives a performance of what another type of king looks like, as he will become Henry IV. Sarah Orenstein plays Countess of Northumberland and a supporter of Bolingbroke. She is determined, politically savvy, and formidable. Charlie Gallant plays a dashing Lord Willoughby who gets sicker and sicker with a mysterious disease that no one can diagnose. Remember this is New York in the 1970s and 80s. We know what is making him sick.

At the center of this as Richard II, is Stephen Jackman-Torkoff (they/them). They are supremely confident, playful, impetuous and dangerous. They don’t just walk when they can strut or flounce. they love ‘playing up’ when dealing with courtiers. But they impetuosity makes Richard dangerous. Stephen Jackman-Torkoff is compelling in the part.   

The production is sobering when we see where this sexually free and almost careless life-style will lead.

I loved the commitment of the cast and all those surrounding the production of this brash interpretation of Richard II.

An aside. Isn’t it time that some producer in Toronto steps up and produces any of the many plays that Brad Fraser has written in the last 20 years, the last time he had a play produced in Toronto? For example: Five@ Fifty (about five women at 50 years old creating an intervention for one of their friends); True Love Lies, Kill Me Now?

The Stratford Festival presents:

Plays until September 28, 2023.

Running time: 2 hours, 39 minutes (one intermission)

Leave a Comment