Even though he’s playing the title character in “Richard II,” it was the role of Bolingbroke that George Mount coveted. Now that he’s deeper into the part, George sees that Richard is closer to Hamlet and Lear in his existential journey. Listen to George talk about the challenges and rewards of taking on the role of Richard.
Note, that the music in this piece (courtesy of Sound Designer Dominic CodyKramers) is a sample of what will be used in Seattle Shakespeare Company’s production of “Richard II.”
Finding Richard Transcript
It’s Hamlet-scale stuff, in the complexity of what’s being said and what he’s going through. It’s extremely daunting material. And to attempt to scale that height is exhilarating.
My name is George Mount. I’m Artistic Director of Seattle Shakespeare Company, and I’m playing the role of Richard the Second in our production of “Richard II.”
I had wanted to really, from my high school years, wanted to tackle the role of Bolingbroke. Darragh Kennan, mentioned that Richard II was a role that he had always wanted to play. I had had some chats with Rosa Joshi, the director, about her interest in directing “Richard II,” and I thought there might be a way to make something fun and interesting happen if Darragh and I each learned Richard and Bolingbroke and flip-flopped night by night for the production. Unfortunately, schedules did not allow that to happen, Darragh is an in-demand actor, and had to take some other work. And so Rosa and I, in discussions, decided that it might actually be a better fit for me to take on Richard. It’s one of those things that even though I always said I wanted to play Bolingbroke, most people said, “Really? You’re more of a Richard.” So I figured that that’s probably the case, it’s often good to listen to what people say about you. Listen to your detractors and your admirers both.
So that’s kind of what Rosa and I settled on. And the more I got to thinking about the part and wresting with the part, it’s extremely challenging, and a very interesting fit for me as I think about the kind of actor that I am and the kind of personality that I am. Not so say that Richard’s personality reflects mine, but in some ways he is not…he’s more of an intellectual and an artist and a thinker than a militarist and a strategist…not to say that I’m not charismatic. So those were some interesting things that I could see an angle in as an actor, as an artist, as something to express and to explore. And then I’ve just been wrestling with how to tackle this man’s condition and how he expresses himself in his condition
It’s an incredibly dense, poetic piece. For Shakespeare, we often think of Shakespeare as relying heavily on poetry. I may be corrected on this, but I have yet to find any prose in this play. It’s all verse. But it’s also an interesting kind of verse in that a lot of it is, at least I find, not that kind of….you often think of Hamlet as a reflective and poetic character, but his verse, as eloquent as it is, has a sense that it’s coming from his own immediate reflections and coming out, sort of directly. Whereas Richard’s speaking seems to be reflected back and forth within him, before coming out. That there’s an additional self-awareness of himself as speaking and living in a poetic world, but also thinking of himself as an artificial construction. And I think that’s rooted in kind of where he’s coming from. Of course the play is rooted in this medieval, chivalric world in which the primogeniture of kings, and that the king is God’s anointed on earth is very much the worldview. And especially for Richard, who took that divine right, and the king’s actions were above all others, a lot more to heart than say some of his predecessors had recently.
Probably because, in some ways, because he wasn’t necessarily…he didn’t engage people very well, he didn’t have really good, political or social skills, and he wasn’t much of a military leader. He wasn’t going to be making friends and influencing people that way. So it was all about him being endowed by God above and by his lineage before as something special: the king. And I think that Shakespeare reflects that in his language. That he almost talks about himself and his experiences in almost a third-person kind of way. Not exactly in third person…there seems to be a sense of his extra self-awareness and of his distinction from all others. And then what happens is that all that’s taken away from him. And so then the play….and so us here, 21st century, populist, value of the human individual stuff….we don’t buy into that king stuff anymore. But what you can really identify with is that this is a man’s existential crisis that he goes through.
When what he…and that’s interesting, because there’s another aspect to it….what he has bought into of who he is and is taken away from him, and so then he’s left with “Well, what am I?” And I also think, and Rosa and I in discussing the play, also think that…so that in this play, he’s not an especially good ruler. He’s not, say like….King Lear also goes through that existential crisis, where his kingdom is taken away from him, and then he’s left wondering who he is and what he his. Lear’s kingdom is taken away at the end of his reign where you get the impression that up until the last decision that he made as a king, that he was probably a pretty good solid leader. There’s nothing to say otherwise. Except that one bad last decision. Richard is shown, almost from the beginning to not be an especially competent leader. He’s implicated in the murder of his uncle, who had been rebelling against him. He makes this kind of poor decision about exiling a couple of also rival and allies at the same time. He’s selling off his land to pay for his own lavish extravagances and his cronies that he’s hanging out with in court. And he’s making ill-timed excursions into foreign territory, Ireland, to suppress rebellion. So he’s shown to be not an especially good ruler. There are all these people around him who see that he’s not especially good; and Rosa and I suspect that, in his heart, even though he’s born to this position and he believes it, he might not necessarily believe that he himself is actually well-suited for it. He’s more of the poet, more of the artist, more of the intellectual, more of the thinker. So he’s stripped of this thing that he both believes whole-heatedly that he should be and also suspects that he isn’t suited for it. So then what does that leave him?
And he goes through, not unlike Hamlet, the other sort of intellectual thinker of the Shakespeare canon, who has a crisis of action and what to do, Richard has this crisis of identity of what am I without all that? And for a while, like Hamlet, there’s a touch of the mad that goes through him. We’re not quite sure, but Rosa and I will found out during the rehearsals exactly where he comes to at the end. Is he an empty vessel or does he start to figure out what is the human that he’s left with. For a long time in the play he seems to be…it seems like he thinks he’s nothing. There’s that great scene where he’s looking at himself in the mirror just to see what’s left after his crown, his rule, the obedience that others have given him, is all stripped away. And he looks at himself and sees if there’s anything that he can recognize about himself left.
Let’s face it, we’ve kind of just now are getting through a bit of light at the end of a long tunnel where people’s…in our contemporary capitalist world, there are a lot people who identify themselves through their professions. When you say, “Hi” and meet someone for the first time, I say “I’m George Mount” “What do you do?” “I work for Seattle Shakespeare Company.” We identify ourselves by what we do, and we sort of have had thousands and thousands of people in this country who have lost that identity. And are still without…there’s that long-term unemployed. The longer that they stay without employment, the more likely they are to be unemployed, and then who are they then. You read a lot of anecdotal evidence about how people then start to redefine themselves. Oh, maybe this is a chance to go back school or start that small business that I always wanted…and others who just founder.
I think we can expect to see a real focus on character, story and language. There will not be a lot of fancy bells and whistles in the production values. Not to say that the work of the designers Carol Wolf Clay and Dominic CodyKramers and Geoff Korf, and Jocelyn Fowler…their work is going to be exceptional, but it’s not going to be the center piece. There will be a very sparse, stripped-down environment in the staging…the setting. The costuming will have real strong elements of the period in which the story is set. There’s always that distinction with Shakespeare is that some other period besides when Shakespeare wrote it or when the events of the play are happening or some other time. It’s going to be more to when the events of the play happened. But the stage environment will have a much more open, modernist sparseness to it, allowing a lot of attention to be placed on humans in that space and how they’re relating to each other, what they’re saying to each other and what they’re going through. Rosa had a very….it seems like she’s taking inspiration in some ways from this great speech towards the end of the play, right before Richard’s demise where he’s alone in his prison cell, and uses his thoughts to people the emptiness of the space he’s in. In some ways that’s potentially a literal exploration that will happen in the production as a whole. It’s very much an empty space with a defined trapezoidal, geometric figure on the floor. And it’s within that cell that the world of the court and everything else gets peopled by the actors…by the bodies on stage.
This is probably a little unfair to describe her this way, but Rosa, it seems, is one of Seattle’s hottest new directors on the scene, who has actually been around since 1995. But she’s been, for a long time, working in academia, and so only occasionally getting out to do work in the general public. And she’s recently come to…brought her attention through the work at upstart crow. Some all-female productions of “King John” and then recently “Titus Andronicus,” which brought her, in a flash, back to the attention of Seattle’s theatre scene. I loved those plays. I thought they were just brilliant and inventive and intelligent and theatrical…emotional. And that’s the kind of work that I would like to see more of. And fortunately, I’m in a position where I can make that kind of stuff happen. So I approached her about….if there was work she’d like to see happen that Seattle Shakespeare Company could help accommodate. Not necessarily wanting to step on the toes of what she might want ….her toes on whatever work they were doing and planning for upstart crow. And “Richard II” happened to be one of the shows that was at the top of her list to direct. And not necessarily as an upstart crow show. There were some other titles that she was interested in exploring with some of her upstart crow compatriots, but “Richard II” existed outside that model. And since I was already thinking about that show as part of this season of know thyself, it thematically fit in with what where we were beginning to explore with some of the other titles in the season. It was an exciting opportunity for both artist and theatre company coming together.