Tuned into an audio drama, you hope for – and wait for – a moment that makes you prick up your ears. Patience pays off in the four-part Shakespeare on the Radio presentation of Richard II starring Andre Holland (Moonlight, Jitney) in the title role.
The actor, whose plainspoken approach to Shakespeare’s verse is a constant plus, and the play hit the height of their command three-quarters of the way through the production. The sense-tingling point arrives as the formerly cavalier King Richard comes to the stark realization that he’s lost every trace of his power to Henry Bolingbroke. You hear Richard’s pain and feel the desolation.
You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone, so it’s said.
Presented by WNYC with the Public Theater, Richard II was conceived by director Saheem Ali as a pandemic pivot. Announced by the Public in January as part of its free summer lineup, the show was later deemed no-go under the stars. Ali’s plan B: over the airwaves. The show, which features a largely BIPOC ensemble, is dedicated to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Scenic elements, which can be a conceptual mixed bag in the park – slides, pools, post-apocalyptic ruins – are absent in a work that’s for your ears only. The timeframe emerges with the beep of a hospital monitor, a car engine, a bullhorn, a colloquial Whaaat? and a tabloid-y newscast. In lieu of visuals, vocal clarity is abundant as the divinely appointed Richard II descends. Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o narrates and sets each scene as banishments, betrayals, bloody treachery, acts of mercy and glimpses of humanity play out.
From word one Miriam A. Hyman fills Bolingbroke with fire and ice. Dakin Matthews, who co-starred with Holland in 2011 at the Delacorte Theater in All’s Well That Ends Well, brings passion and pathos as Gaunt. John Douglas Thompson tolls as the loyal York. Estelle Parsons adds flecks of humor as the Duchess of York. Stephen McKinley Henderson makes the small role of gardener bloom into something sweetly touching. A history play that’s seldom performed, Richard II’s take on power – including its misuses – feels all too evergreen.
Richard II is available as a 4-hour podcast at wnycstudios.org, which includes the play, plus commentary.