Plays about defeat have a reputation for discomfiting audiences; they tend not to get produced all that much except when, as now, a regime shows signs of cracking under the weight of its own arrogance and overextended powers. Henry James’s famous apothegm, to the effect that a failure was always something that a success somehow ineffably wasn’t, may give heart to the more cerebral among the losers, but rarely produces a run on the box office. Tragic heroes, who dare all and get smashed by destiny, may be admirable; losers, whose every bold step forward is matched by two hesitant steps back, are a different kettle of poor fish.
Shakespeare’s Richard II and Aeschylus’s The Persians, both plays that focus on the defeated and strike a predominantly elegiac tone, have little else in common except their ability to cause discomfiture: They both seem to have something “wrong” about them. With The Persians, it’s the impulse behind the play’s creation: Nobody has yet been able to determine if the original audience, in fifth-century-BC Athens, saw it as a stunning gesture of compassion toward a defeated enemy, a piece of sustained patriotic gloating by the victors, or a warning to the latter not to emulate the foolhardy arrogance of those they’ve just brought low. It may be a bit of all three. Whichever it is, its unvaried tone of lament poses a huge challenge to directors, not unlike the one our homegrown attempts at political theater have been facing since the current occupant in the White House launched his mendacious and pointless invasion of Iraq.
Lydia Koniordou’s production of The Persians, which the National Theatre of Greece offered here briefly last week, struggled gamely and handsomely with the play’s intractable structural problem, but had no more success in shaping the material (heard in a modern Greek translation) than its two English-language predecessors of recent seasons, by the National Actors Theatre and the Pearl Theatre Company. First come omens of defeat, then news of defeat, then the ghost of the king’s father bitterly cursing his defeated scion’s folly (a handy built-in analogy to our own Bush-league rulers), and finally the arrival of the royal loser himself, bitterly bewailing his disaster.
That’s as much story as Aeschylus supplies. While you can get many different emotional colors out of it, the satisfactions it supplies as drama are minimal. The text is almost all delivered by the Chorus, Persian elders waiting anxiously for news from the front. Koniordou, who also played the lamenting queen mother, Atossa, mustered a wide and subtle range of techniques to break up their long threnodies: pitched or unpitched chanting over drum-based music (by Takis Farazis); a second, rougher-spoken chorus of messengers from the battle; exquisite shifts of the varicolored lighting (by Lefteria Pavlopoulos) to mark changes in the emotional temperature. (Occasionally, pushing feelings to the edge, she got into that risky territory where the ancient Athenians might have found the play sardonically funny: This is certainly the first time I ever heard a Greek chorus snivel in unison.) But the characters’ emotion carries little cathartic effect; at best it rouses a glum resentment at our having been dragged into a position not unlike theirs, by a differently foolish leader.
Unwise leadership is central to Richard II, too, but it’s hard to tell where the unwisdom lies. The Richard we see first, doing his best to settle the dispute between his contentious cousin Henry Bolingbroke and his fervent ally Thomas Mowbray with minimal bloodshed, seems as fair-minded and judicious as a king can be. Once the quarrelers are in exile, we suddenly get a greedy, self-indulgent Richard who gouges excess taxes from nobles and commoners alike, and sasses his dying uncle, John of Gaunt. When Bolingbroke returns at the head of an army, it’s his turn to sound civil and fair-minded, pleading that all he wants is his own estate and swearing fealty to the king. The next thing we know, Bolingbroke forcing the abdication through which Richard, before being murdered by an office-hungry aristo, discovers his true nobility of soul through being a gracious loser.
Clearly, either Shakespeare or his characters have omitted something, some piece of general Elizabethan understanding about Richard II’s reign that needed no onstage explanation for the crowd in a Tudor innyard. Presumably Richard’s conciliatory equanimity is to be understood as weakness, his later self-indulgence as justifying his deposition. Theater was an important propaganda tool in Shakespeare’s London: When the Earl of Essex led an attempted coup to depose Elizabeth, a co-conspirator bribed the company to revive Richard II for the occasion. Walsingham’s spies were at work, and the conspirators were caught; the night before their execution, Elizabeth displayed her version of conciliatory equanimity by having Shakespeare’s troupe play at Windsor. (On first learning of the conspiracy, she is supposed to have told Walsingham, “I am Richard II; know ye not that?”)
Brian Kulick’s austere, imposingly handsome, but curiously impassive production keeps the politics of Richard II as deep a mystery as the action’s psychological mainsprings. Against big, monochrome backdrops by Tom Gleeson, the cast, in evening dress, stands or strolls languidly, evoking an Edwardian comedy of manners with a few parvenu Americans intruding for purposes of disconcertment. Graham Winton’s raspy Bolingbroke is an Edward G. Robinson gangster in a tux; Jon de Vries, a booming-voiced, powerful actor weirdly miscast as the dying Gaunt, rasps even more forcefully. The decadence of Richard’s court is signified by a glimpse of same-sex couples dancing and sniffing coke from a silver tray, inexplicably accompanied by an antique recording of The Teddy-Bears’ Picnic.
What this all has to do with either the misrule of England or the evolution of Richard’s character, nobody’s saying, though Michael Cumpsty’s urbane, lucid, and often touching rendition of the title role makes more sense than anything else onstage. Cumpsty used to use his big, lanky frame and resonant voice to bellow such roles; latterly, he’s learned wonderfully how to personalize the verse. The production’s irritating blankness is much alleviated, especially in the second half, by his skill at catching the role’s emotional music, its momentary seizures of despair or grief, warded off with weepy flecks of irony. George Morfogen, a piously quailing Duke of York, and Ellen Parker, raucously feisty as his Duchess, enhance the production. So, after a maddeningly mannered turn as the courtier Bushy, does David Greenspan, knotty and tight-mouthed, as the obstinate, conniving Bishop of Carlisle. But if you ask me what made Richard a bad king, or why Bolingbroke should have made him give up the throne, all I can tell you is that neither Shakespeare nor CSC seems to have thought much about the matter.