William Shakespeare wrote plays about all the other Richards that served as kings of England, and even wrote trilogies about a couple of Henrys, but Richard the First, called the Lionheart? Forget it. The bard was more interested in the troubled reign of Good King Richard’s little brother, King John (who, full disclosure, is supposedly my 26th-great-grandfather–oh, how the mighty have fallen). Heck, there are even a couple plays about the Lionheart’s father, Henry II, though those came much later (James Goldman’s The Lion in Winter and Jean Anouilh’s Becket). Richard, meanwhile, has been reduced to that guy who comes riding in at the end of many versions of Robin Hood, though he’s in The Lion in Winter too.
Central Works is attempting to rectify this in a big way, with not one, not two, but three plays about the Lionheart, all written by company codirector and usual playwright Gary Graves. The Berkeley company does nothing but new plays, collaboratively developed with the cast and creative team, but this is the first time it’s ever taken on an entire trilogy. One of the plays is preexisting—the middle one, Lionheart, was originally produced by Central Works in 2003, and the other two take it as a jumping-off point. That play was about Richard off in the Crusades, trying to retake Jerusalem from the Muslims, and about his secret peace talks with the Sultan Saladin’s brother, so Richard the First, Part 1: Taking up the Cross is about Richard’s road to the Holy Land, and Part Three: A King’s Ransom is about his sudden retreat from the Crusades and being taken prisoner on his way home. More to the point, though, it’s about all his ghosts from the previous parts coming back to haunt him.
Company codirector Jan Zvaifler’s elegant staging in the Berkeley City Club is pared down in a way that’s very effective. There’s no set to speak of, just a huge canvas map created by Jeff Wincek hung on one of the walls, across from the room’s built-in fireplace. The names on the map are so faded as to be almost indiscernible, but Jerusalem lies in its center. Tammy Berlin’s period costumes are handsome without being ostentatious, and Gregory Scharpen uses a lot of Middle Eastern and Medieval European music to set the scene, as well as contemporary suspense music to reflect Richard’s inner turmoil, and accentuates the action with sounds of battle, waves, and winds.
The first play, Taking up the Cross, covers a lot of ground in 90 minutes. First of all, there’s the newly crowned king’s decision to run off to the Crusades, levying huge taxes on the citizenry to pay for his campaign. His mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, urges him to stay and solidify his power, but he feels this is something he has to do. Milissa Carey has powerful poise as Eleanor, who’d been married to the kings of both France and England and been imprisoned by Richard’s father Henry II for 16 years. Although clearly fond of Richard, she’s sly in her meddling and always has an agenda of her own.
One amusing quirk of Graves’s trilogy is that Richard and his sister Joanna speak with anachronistically modern Cockney accents. Richard uses expressions like “tickety-boo” and “Little Fanny Adams,” and he professes not to speak much French, much to his mother’s dismay. In real life, Richard spoke no English, only French, and spent very little time in England. Both of his parents were French, not just Eleanor, and Henry II didn’t speak English either. The accents in the play are very thick but mostly credible, the French ones more than the Cockney ones (“dye after dye” for “day after day”).
There’s a whole lot of expository dialogue, particularly toward the beginning of first play but coming up in each of them, which helps to flesh out the political landscape of the time and give a sense of why alliances are made and broken, but it does have a dulling effect, like anytime the people you’re with are gossiping at length about people you don’t know.
Much of the play deals with Richard’s friendship with Philip, the king of France, who’s portrayed as the Lionheart’s BFF and more, complete with homoerotic wrestling and jealous spats. Richard is engaged to Philip’s unseen sister to cement their alliance, and the French king decides to tag along to the Crusades despite being no warrior. Amusingly, no sooner do they take a solemn oath of partnership than they start fighting with each other. John Patrick Moore is amusingly posh and pettish as Philip, with a smooth dignity which makes him a good foil for Joshua Schell’s bullheaded and hot-tempered Richard.
The English king swaggers and throws his weight around, but defensively, actively chafing at any hint of anyone else pushing him around—especially his mother, who’s had the most practice. Whenever someone argues with him, he launches into a fury, swearing up and down that he will not be swayed, and then when he talks to someone who wants him to do what he wanted to do in the first place, he rages at them and decides to do the other thing that he swore to the first person that he wouldn’t. He’s a stubborn, ostensibly unswayable leader who wavers with the wind. He’s also a rowdy drunk who plunges into desperate penitence and self-hatred because of his oft-insinuated homosexual leanings and more deeply hidden sins.
Megan Trout gives a deeply sympathetic portrayal of Joanna, his sister, who can be haughty and a bit of a scold but is in an impossible situation. Her husband being dead, she has to make an advantageous marriage, but Richard chafes at any ideas she may have on the matter, fuming that she’ll marry whoever he says she’ll marry—and like most of his firm decisions, that changes all the time. She normally calls him “Rick” or even “Dickie.”
Kathryn Zdan has a grim and affecting role in the play as Rachel, a Jewish Cockney girl whose whole family was slaughtered in the London massacre that followed Richard’s coronation. The story she tells in the first play is chilling and heartbreaking, but she really comes into her own as a character in the second play, when she’s followed Richard to Palestine and insinuated herself into his retinue as his chronicler, disguised as a boy for an extra bit of Shakespearean resonance (if a trilogy of kingly history plays isn’t enough).
Armando McClain is hardly in the first play, with a brief cameo as Kalil, Saladin’s brother, and an intriguing turn as a crazed mystic. But Kalil is central to the second play as Richard’s opposite number, and lends great depth and heart to the whole proceeding. By far the most sympathetic character in the trilogy, he’s refined and gracious, honest but shrewd, cultured and charismatic, with a rich, resonant voice. Lionheart is relatively deep and sinewy, with a fascinating tension between the four characters, although Rachel tries to stick to the shadows, focused on her mission with the king.
The final play, A King’s Ransom, is the thinnest of the trilogy. A mere 70 minutes, it shows Richard in a sudden and frenzied flight from Jerusalem, convinced that God won’t let him enter just as he’s seemingly close to victory. Wounded, feverish and half-crazed, he’s shipwrecked and loses his way, trying to walk home from the coast of Croatia. Falling asleep in a cave, he awakens in captivity, watched over by a coldly staring Leopold, Duke of Austria (played by Moore with placid impassivity). He’s apparently been here for some time but doesn’t remember it, although certain incidents come back to him when they’re brought up.
Convinced that Richard is a filthy traitor to the Crusade, Leopold seemingly has no duties but watching the prisoner, always sitting and staring, never leaving, waiting for the Emperor to call for Richard. The king in rags is visited by Eleanor and Joanna, who inform Richard that he’s being held for ransom (plus still more exposition), and by the haunting spirit of Kalil. He’s haunted also by Rachel, although in the person of a furious boy played by Zdan who apparently shot Richard with a crossbow in one of many incidents he can’t recall. This is really the dark night of the soul for Richard as he waits for judgment both earthly and otherwise.
All three plays effectively opened at once, one night after another on the same weekend, with no cushion to settle into one before unveiling the next. With that in mind, they were fairly polished on their opening nights, although Schell had to call “Line!” at least once in each of the parts. Fair enough, he does have to do a whole lot of talking, and he scarcely missed a beat before jumping back in, but that can’t help but break the spell.
By far the most fleshed-out and self-contained play of the three is part two, Lionheart, which is also the only preexisting one and the only one long enough to have an intermission (but still not quite two hours). As such, if you were to see only one of them, that would be the one. Although the other two have larger casts, they’re shorter and slimmer plays that lean on the middle one from either side. The first is a prelude, setting up the second play, and the last is an epilogue, processing what’s gone before. All three are well written, well performed, and enjoyable in their own right, but only one of them is self-contained enough to stand on its own.
Still, there are a lot of rewards to seeing the whole trilogy, not least that it would be a shame to miss out on Eleanor and Philip, who don’t appear in the middle play. Each has some stirring speeches and affecting character moments, and there is a sort of arc to the whole thing, even if it starts stronger than it ends. But then, by and large, isn’t that the way of kings’ reigns themselves in those troubled and tempestuous times? That’s probably why there are so many plays written about them.
Shows #96, 97 & 98 of 2012, attended October 18, 19, 20.