In order to fund wars to subjugate the Irish, Richard plans to tax the rich. With Bolingbroke banished for feuding with another noble, and his father, John of Gaunt, dead, Richard seizes the inheritance that belongs to his cousin, and goes off to war, where he is unaware of a rebellion at home: Bolingbroke has returned from exile to claim his inheritance and is likely to depose Richard. At the center of the play is the issue of divine right: does the king rule as God’s representative on Earth? Is everything he does God’s will?
Doran plays up the notion of Richard as a divine figure with costume supervisor Stephanie Arditti’s white robe that gives Richard, with very long hair, the look of Christ. The language of Christianity is threaded throughout: “balm,” “water” and “Pilate.” In a climactic scene, Richard himself calls his eventual killer “Judas.” (It’s a key change from Shakespeare, where Richard is slain by Sir Piers Exton, an assassin; this murderer is closer to home.)
The other key relatives in Richard II besides the short-lived John of Gaunt (Julian Glover), who delivers the speech about “this earth, this realm, this England” thrillingly, are the Duke of York, the last of seven sons and also Richard’s uncle, and his son Aumerle (Sam Marks), who becomes Richard’s cousin-with-benefits in Doran’s reading—the homosexual subtext is more forthright here but not unheard-of. Oliver Ford Davies plays the Duke of York with a booming voice, by turns denouncing his nephew Bolingbroke and then backing off. Torn between believing the king is chosen by God, yet finding his regency while the king fights in Ireland is undermined by men with troops, he finally says, “I am neuter” in a great Shakespearean pun.
There is a brief appearance, too, by Harry Percy (Matthew Needham), who will become known as Hotspur by Henry IV, Part 1 and is already clearly a man of action and sinew, albeit a bit dim.