Even though not everyone will be able to see one of Shakespeare’s astonishing works at The Globe in London, finding a well-done play of the Bard is not too difficult to find, and Seattle is no exception.
The Seattle Shakespeare Company’s (SSC) current production of “Richard II” proves this fact, with a focus not only on the poetry of the playwright’s plays, but with a ton of help from the surrounding community.
The SSC production of “Richard II” has a heavy concentration of members from the Seattle University community. Theater professor Rosa Joshi was offered the job of director, who then brought in professor Carol Clay and professor Dominic CodyKramers for set design and sound. Professor Kate Wisniewski and alum Robert Keene both have supporting roles in the cast; alum Antoinette Bianco is assistant director and current student Michael Notestine helped with costumes.
Joshi has directed a number of Shakespearean plays previously based on her love of the bard and she traces that love to Shakespeare’s artistry with words.
“The vision in his plays is really expansive, and he can encompass the whole range of human emotions in his plays. And it goes to the highest of highs and the lowest of lows,” Joshi said. “I love that the characters are expressed through language; I love that the action of the play is so deeply entrenched in language and that it can be incredibly poetic and naturalistic.”
Clay also said that Shakespeare’s diction influenced her decision on a design for the set. Due to the complexity and poetry of Shakespeare’s language, Clay wanted to channel a kind of “simplicity, clarity and power” through her design. Figuring out how to negotiate the space was like “playing [her] own little game,” Clay said.
The floor of the SSC set is a large, golden, geometric shape; golden trusses hang from the ceiling, and a moveable throne is the only set piece that is always on stage, even though it is constantly being moved and turned in different ways, in conjunction with the ebbs and tides of the play. The flexibility of the set is paralleled by “thematic melody” and sound effects, designed by CodyKramers, who echoes this union by saying that he and Joshi have a good “common aesthetic.”
The play begins with King Richard II at the prime of his reign—“the highest of the highs.” By result of a tragic string of events, the story concludes with Richard being murdered in a jail cell— “the lowest of the lows.”
While not without its comedic parts, “Richard II” is clearly a tragedy. More than that, it has what Joshi calls an “existentialist” element.
“The story’s about the downfall of the king, but it’s also the story of what happens to a person who loses everything that defines who he is in the world,” Joshi said. “When you take away everything that defines who you are, what are you left with? What is your purpose? Is there a purpose?”
Joshi said that this existential element is why she wanted to be involved, and also why this play is so relatable to a contemporary audience. It’s easy to sit in the crowd at a Shakespeare play and feel as though you have nothing in common with what’s happening onstage, but everyone can look at Richard’s identity crisis and see the humanity in it—it’s something timeless that anyone can relate to.
Going to see the show with that in mind, it’s a moving experience. Without this prerequisite knowledge, it could be easy to put a lot of unnecessary distance between yourself and the story. It’s one of those plot lines in which you have to actively invest yourself if you want to keep up. If you allow it to be applicable to your own life, the words come alive and the design backs them up, illustrating a tragic commentary on identity.
“Richard II” is playing at SSC until Feb. 2; tickets range from $30 to $39.