By Maureen Lee Lenker
July 17, 2020 at 03:11 PM EDT
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courtesy The Public Theater

The play has been the thing every summer in Central Park since the late 1950s. Each year, the Public Theater has maintained the noble tradition of producing free Shakespeare in the Park. But this year, it was not to be due to the coronavirus pandemic resulting in the cancellation of live events and wreaking havoc on the theater industry.

Richard II, starring André Holland and directed by Saheem Ali, was already slated to be part of this summer’s productions when the cancellations were announced. So, the Public Theater decided to do it as a radio show, conceived specifically for the aural format by Ali, which aired across four parts on WNYC (and is streaming online as a podcast) this week.

It might seem an odd venture, but as Richard says, “Let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings.” It’s both a profound and simple call to action — one that the company answers admirably, accompanied by expansive sound effects, auditory atmosphere, and stirring narration from Lupita Nyong’o.

Shakespeare’s plays, though often taught as literary texts, are most alive and vibrant in a visual format. They depend on stagecraft and a living, breathing interpretation to impart their truths to an audience. That is harder to access in an oral form. The complex language of the Bard of the Avon is a lot to take in if you’re not naturally gifted at absorbing information solely by listening. This production endeavors to combat that, not only with effects worthy of an old-time radio drama, but with narration and analysis that provide essential context and a framework for comprehension that is more implicit in a live production.

This comes in the form of in-depth discussions of the play hosted by journalist Vinson Cunningham. The discussions, which bookend each episode, range from a history of the tradition of Shakespeare in the Park to conversations with the show’s cast to contextual dialogues with Professors James Shapiro and Ayanna Thompson. They are program notes exploded into an oral interview format, lending modern resonance and perspective to the play, as well as Shakespeare’s work and this annual theatrical tradition established by Joseph Papp.

Much is made of Richard II’s parallels to our current moment with its portrait of an indecisive, vainglorious leader and political unrest. Though it’s up to the academic discussion to lend the show that lens since the language is simply the language without the trappings of staging, costume, etc., to offer a provocative visual context.

The play’s standouts are in its dueling foils — Holland as the ineffectual King Richard and Miriam A. Hyman as Bolingbroke and later King Henry IV. Holland walks the tightrope of Richard’s absurdity and heartbreak masterfully, careening expertly from a mercurial vacillator to a man whose brokenness belies an insight hitherto unseen in his leadership. He wrings the language for every ounce of pain, humility, and melancholy it could possess. Because we cannot see him, his voice is the tool of his descent, moving from a full-throated command to a halting, distracted tone. Left with naught but the text, the link between Richard’s crown and his identity and sense of self has perhaps never been more clear.

Hyman is every inch his equal, a Bolingbroke who feels less like a bullheaded, wronged rebel, as he is sometimes played, and more a shrewd tactician. Casting a woman as Bolingbroke — and a Black woman at that — hammers home just why and how Richard and his supporters underestimate her. Hyman’s quiet simmer underscores the complexities of Bolingbroke’s rise to power, allowing us to sink even more fully into the question of whether Bolingbroke actively planned to seize the crown or whether it’s the result of a churning inexorable force once she sets events in motion. While Richard preens and prevaricates, she bides her time, keeping a lid on her emotions, wielding command through a stealthy assuredness that belies her own self-doubt.

In spite of all of this, however, it’s hard to resist imagining what could’ve been under different circumstances. Richard and Bolingbroke are shadows of each other, circling a hollow crown. That’s an apt metaphor for this audio production, a shadow of the stage show originally intended. It’s difficult not to wish we had the opportunity to view Holland’s masterful take on Richard, not to feel instinctually that seeing Hyman opposite him would be even more powerful than hearing it. But just like Bolingbroke, this production is a worthy usurper, and one that comes with more complexities and wistfulness for what might have been than expected. B+

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