King Richard The Second

Studio 77, Victoria University, 77 Fairlie Tce, Kelburn, Wellington

02/06/2009 - 06/06/2009

The Compleate Workes Project

Production Details

A star falls from the firmament

Recent political fluctuations in New Zealand and the United States provided inspiration for an upcoming adaptation of Shakespeare’s political tragedy Richard II.

Set in the context of a 1930s carnival—dirty, dark and unreliable—third year Theatre students from Victoria University will tackle the challenges of the popular tragedy Richard II, which sees a sovereign King struggle to maintain power amidst shifting loyalties and the turn of fortune’s wheel.

Part of Shakespeare’s history play sextet, Richard II is the tale of a man unfit to be King and unable to control events as they conspire against him. Loyalties shift as lines are drawn in the sand and personal and political safety is put before anything else.

Directors, David O’Donnell and Rachel Lenart were inspired to direct Richard II while watching coverage of last year’s election campaigns in New Zealand and the United States.

"Richard’s fall from grace seemed to have many parallels in the real world as voters criticised and ejected formerly popular leaders George Bush and Helen Clark," says Mr O’Donnell.

A carnival setting seemed perfect for a play about the circus-like political process. "The pomp and ceremony of the US campaign, the Winston Peters circus and the media circus surrounding the leaders—in all of this we see parallels with Richard II," says Mr O’Donnell.

Richard II incorporates art direction and unique design elements courtesy of third year Theatre design students, under the guidance of experienced Theatre Designer and Technical officer James Davenport.

Richard II is presented as part of the Shakespeare Compleate Workes Festival 2009. For a full timetable of events visit

What: Richard II, by William Shakespeare,
directed by David O’Donnell and Rachel Lenart
Dates: Tuesday 2 – Saturday 6 June 2009
Time: Performances begin at 7.30pm Tues-Sat and the matinee on Sat 6 begins at 1.30pm (please arrive 15 – 20 minutes early)
Venue: Studio 77, 77 Fairlie Terrace, Kelburn (Gate 10 of Victoria University)
Bookings: Email or phone 463 5359
RSVP: By Monday 1 June to confirm your attendance 

CAST: (in order of appearance)
King Richard The Second: Simon Haren
Queen to King Richard: Laura Velvin
John of Gaunt: Mitch Tawhi Thomas
Bolingbroke: Ailsa Krefft
Thomas Mowbray: Hannah Banks
Marshall: James Barber
Duke of Aumerle: William Moffatt
Bushy: Chelsea Thorn
Bagot: Louise Lethbridge
Green: Jeremy Keene
Duke of York: Rosie Potter
Lord Ross: Hayley D'Ath
Lord Willoughby: Jennifer Tristram
Earl of Northumberland: Nick Zwart
Servant: Hannah Banks

Harry Percy: Nicole Harvey

Earl of Salisbury: Laura Balmforth

Captain: Daniel Brown
Bishop of Carlisle: Daniel Brown
Sir Stephen Scroop: James Barber
Gardner: Hayley D'Ath
Gardner's Servant: Jennifer Tristram
Abbot of Westminster: Louise Lethbridge
Lord Fitzwater: Chelsea Thorn
Duchess of York: Bailey McCormack
Sir Pierce of Exton: Hannah Banks
Exton's Servant: Hayley D'Ath
Groom: Jeremy Keene
Keeper: James Barber
Ladies attending the Queen:

Set design: Liam Rae and Hannah Smith
Lighting design: Harry Meech
Costume and makeup design: Patrick Keenan and Becky Wilson
Sound design Kyla Walker
Music: Hannah Banks, James Barber, Hayley D'Ath

2hrs 40min, incl. interval

Intriguing to watch

Review by Peter Manglethwaite 14th Aug 2009

One of the great things about staging a production as part of the Victoria University Theatre Programme is that it allows the opportunity to experiment that is not always appropriate in a professional production, as the emphasis is on the educational experience, for both the company and the audience rather than necessarily on the finished product. That’s not to say however, that this or other productions are not of quality, but that we might consider the choices made in producing them in a different light. 

The New Zealand premiere of one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known history plays, Richard II was transported from a court setting to a circus tent, giving me the feeling that I was watching two plays, with the common theme of threatened leadership. To me, this combination of two stories revealed nothing new about Shakespeare’s play, but it did make for a surprising performance that was intriguing to watch and provided a fresh setting in which to explore the complexities of the characters…. [More]
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A vivid expose of political machinations

Review by John Smythe 05th Jun 2009

This David O’Donnell and Rachel Lenart-directed contribution to The Compleate Workes Project, produced by Victoria University’s Theatre Programme (THEA 301, 302 & 324), is brilliantly conceived and splendidly executed by a large team with great commitment, wit and pleasure.

It is inspired by the political ‘circus’ of the recent election campaigns in the USA and NZ, which saw hitherto revered leaders (of opposite political bents, as it happens) ignominiously deposed amid often bizarre media razzmatazz.

Our role – and responsibility – as spectacle-hungry consumers is key (damn that word). We sit arena-style in the mini Colosseum that encircles the circus ring on which the acts play out: an inexorable display of suspect splendour where slavering decadence lurks in the shadows; where self-interest and self-deception vie with high-minded rhetoric for our entertainment and insatiable delectation.

We form the hollow crown that rounds the all-too-mortal temples of the antic-performing characters.

The bass drum of the band’s drum kit is branded ‘Richard’ then, later, ‘Henry’. A trombone plays ‘God Save the King’ and heralds scene changes. There’s a whiff of ‘Send in the Clowns’ amid the songs that pepper the action and it all ends with a harsh Kurt Weillian rendition of ‘The Carnival is Over’.

An androgynous King Richard II (Simon Haren), in a gold star-emblazoned white body-stocking and jaunty top hat, presents as one who has inherited the circus and loves the role, happily climbing over his loyal staff to reach his elevated perch. But lacks the key – I mean crucial – qualities of strong leadership …

The leader-in-waiting, Henry Bolingbroke (Ailsa Kreft), is a whip-cracking tamer with vocal tones sometimes redolent of Margaret Thatcher. Her father, John of Gaunt (Mitch Tawhi Thomas) is a tramp-like clown with high arched eyebrows …

The Duke of York (Rosie Potter) is the ring master; Thomas Mowbray (Hannah Banks) is a strongman; Northumberland (Nick Zwart) a wild man; black-tulled Queen Annabella (Laura Velvin), with a golden web behind her, probably stands and preens on a cantering horse.

Bushy (Chelsea Thorn), Bagot (Louise Letherbridge) and Green (Jeremy Keene) are tragic-comic white-faced, black-eyed clowns. Servants leap to balance on their masters as they deliver important messages. Dangerous manoeuvres are played out along a tight strip of light, a mirror is used to smashing illusory effect … And exquisite white paper models of ships and birds bring a lyrical quality to proceedings.

There is nothing tricky or trite about all this. The drama registers as a series of true heartfelt experiences, as Richard loses his throne to Henry. Every unwise action, shift in allegiance and change in influence is clearly conveyed, simultaneously commanding our empathy while objectifying it as spectacle.

I am surprised the opportunity was not taken to play the Gardeners (Hayley D’Ath and Jennifer Tristram) as full-on circus clowns, placed as they are for obvious comic relief before heads begin to roll in earnest.

That said, everyone plays their roles – large, medium and small – with a fully committed understanding of how each part contributes to the greater whole, for which the directors are to be commended.

Judicious cutting ensures the action plays out at dynamically modulated pace – and here I do have a gripe. To cut the final seven lines from Richard’s ‘hollow crown’ speech (III, ii, 171-7) is to rob him – and us – of the epiphany that follows his realisation that Death will transcend his assumed ‘divine right to rule’: his needs are human and he is ill-served by "solemn reverence … respect, tradition, form and ceremonious duty":  
I live with bread like you, feel want,
Taste grief, need friends – subjected thus,
How can you say to me, I am a king?

Similarly he, and we, are denied all but the first nine of his 66-line soliloquy, when imprisoned at Pomfret Castle (V, v). I realise this is an ensemble production so no one character should hog the limelight for too long but this speech is (dare I say it?) the richest gem in this play’s crown. I want to enjoy his strategy for avoiding loneliness, empathise with his bitterness and be asked to consider the proposition that
   any man that but man is,
With nothing shall be pleased, till he be eased
With being nothing.

I want to relish his word-play on time, witness his brinkmanship with madness and share his ambivalence towards the unrequested music:
For though it have holp madmen to their wits,
In me it seems it will make wise men mad:
Yet blessing on his heart the gives it me!
For ’tis a sign of love; and love to Richard
Is a strange brooch in this all-hating world.

Even if we judge him paranoid, now flipped from delusion of grandeur to that of persecution, if these are the moments of vulnerability and truth that transcend the spin-doctored hype of the political circus, their inclusion is all-the-more important because they put the politically expedient circus aspects into clearer perspective.

Nevertheless this elevation of Richard II from potentially earnest history play to a vivid expose of political machinations is a remarkable achievement. And as with The History of Cardenio, the design elements contributed by students of the new Scenographic Imagination course add great value to the production (click on the title above for credits).
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News. 


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