Not to get all sappy about it, but Shakespeare in the Park is the heart of New York City. It’s such a weird thing to grow into an institution in a dog-eat-dog city: free performances, often by our best actors, in an open-air theater under the La Guardia flight path. The Public Theater’s productions are sometimes strong, sometimes not so strong, but the place itself is always wonderful, full of soft summer-night warmth. It doesn’t hurt that its very existence reminds you of scrappy Joe Papp going toe-to-toe against Robert Moses, who wanted the festival to charge for tickets. Papp’s is the fight we’re all in, all the time in the U.S. — the struggle for democratic public luxury.
So it’s not nothing that coronavirus has canceled it. What sort of substitute could maintain not just the artistic impulse but also that sense of a civic gift? When all theater was put on pause, the Public chose to keep rehearsing Richard II virtually with its announced director (Saheem Ali) and star (André Holland), and a huge, you-can-only-afford-it-online cast. Over four nights in July, radio station WNYC broadcast it as a kind of hybrid performance-lecture series, which is now available as a podcast. Each hour’s centerpiece is a 30-to-40-minute slice of Shakespeare’s tragic history, but nearly equal weight belongs to the host (and New Yorker critic) Vinson Cunningham’s interviews with the cast and director, as well as contextualizing information from the Shakespeare academics Ayanna Thompson and James Shapiro.
You can listen, as I did, on consecutive nights, or binge them all at once. But … don’t binge. The play and the surrounding commentary have been deployed in such a way that your mind needs the 23 intervening hours. Many of the play’s themes depend on a sensation of time passing — people lose their honor or grow painfully into nobility — and it’s useful to feel how slow-going these changes can be. You should also space out the starry cameos, like Phylicia Rashad, who briefly plays a widow demanding that her dead husband not lie unavenged, and Stephen McKinley Henderson as a gardener, who says some radical anti-monarchical stuff under cover of metaphor.
It’s not that easy to consume Shakespeare via radio. Richard II’s language is particularly ornate, and its backstory is bewildering — basically every offstage guy is named Edward. Ali has incorporated useful bits of narration (read by Lupita Nyong’o), but certain sound effects (vrooming cars) and casting choices can actually add to the confusion. The play relates the struggle between two men for the crown: Richard, the rightful but financially imprudent king, and his cousin Henry Bolingbroke, who has the people on his side. The Chi star Miriam A. Hyman plays Bolingbroke — as Ali explains to Cunningham, he couldn’t bear to have Holland, a Black man, surrender power to anyone other than a Black woman. Bolingbroke’s male pronouns haven’t been changed, though, which can be disorienting on the radio. The framing conversations become therefore not just enlightening but vital: Over the four episodes, critic Cunningham and scholar Thompson explore the nuances of that cross-gender casting, and Hyman herself explains her take on Bolingbroke. Gradually, you enter into their understanding of Bolingbroke, and with their help, the casting choice gathers clarity and force. (I also found it helpful to read along.)
Other productions emphasize Bolingbroke’s emergence as a demagogue, one whose own flinty virtues erode under the tides of ambition. Can we trust him at his word? He starts the play with real grievances, but his proportional response is to … kill a lot of people and grab the scepter. The play ends with Bolingbroke’s “accidental” command to murder his deposed cousin, an aside overheard by a zealous underling. I’ve always seen Bolingbroke played as untrustworthy, even to himself. Is the character fully in control of his speech? His intentions? Hyman, though, plays Bolingbroke with a thrilling voice and bedrock rectitude, so he seems long-denied and righteous. Played as the good man oppressed too long, he becomes a hard stone in rotting fruit: The “villain” is the power structure, willing to change the name at the top but not the system of corruption itself.
André Holland’s Richard also feels new. The usual interpretation paints Richard as an obviously unsteady king, who lets the crown slip out of listless fingers. Shakespeare writes him as callous and impetuous, certainly, but he’s often also played as a bit weedy, a voluptuary in gorgeous robes, squeamish around command. Holland, with only his voice to draw Richard’s portrait, is not weedy. Even when he’s making bad decisions, his tone rings with confidence. Why must this Richard give up kingship? (Holland made me think about incumbency, term limits, even the well-meaning paternalism that can set in after long service.) Holland’s ability to shade words with the quality of developing thought then turns the play’s second half — in which a dethroned and imprisoned Richard discovers his humanity and becomes one of Shakespeare’s great introspective philosophers — staggeringly beautiful. The series has been calibrated to this inward turn, so that Cunningham’s interrogation also focuses your attention to subtler points, at one point to a narrow sequence of merely four words. The series and the play both have a zooming-in effect. As it goes on, Ali and Holland and Shakespeare take us closer and closer to Richard; Cunningham and the commenters bring us closer and closer to the text.
The experts and the actors all hold forth about how Richard II is the appropriate play for this year of Black Lives Matters protests: It’s about transferring power from the historically “anointed” to the unfairly dispossessed; it’s about the blurry line between state-sanctioned violence and capricious murder; it’s about a man who goes to jail, knowing (everybody knows) he’ll never make it out. Hyman even talks about Bolingbroke’s battle cry “Mine innocence and Saint George!” as being a secret invocation of the man on all their minds, George Floyd. The performers also speak about the shocks and pleasures of being in a nearly entirely Black and brown company. (The show’s weary conscience is played by John Douglas Thompson, who says that Saheem Ali is his first nonwhite director in a Shakespeare play. That’s a stunning measure of our field; Thompson is possibly New York’s most experienced classical actor.) But it’s also appropriate for 2020 because Richard II is a play about a person discovering his true worth in isolation. In another timeline, this production would be up and running now at the Delacorte. We would have been checking the weather report, worried that the storms that have been blowing through New York would cancel a show. Instead, we’re quarantined, huddled around our individual computers, listening alone. “I wasted time then, and now time wastes me,” cries Richard. I push pause on the podcast and think about what I need to do between now and November.