Sweet Tea Shakespeare’s Kingly Richard II and Henry IV Feels More Relevant Than Ever

So far this year, there has been no shortage of Shakespeare offerings, but what is most striking about each of these productions is the inspired innovations and creative energy put forth to make Shakespeare accessible to a wide audience. 

The Tragedy of Macbeth, Joel Cohen’s stark, haunting, black-and-white film featured powerful performances by Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand in the title roles. It is a very stripped-down production that fully focuses on the performance of the actors.

PlayMakers offered something quite different: a streaming, filmed-theater hybrid version of As You Like It. Director Tia James flexed her creative muscles with this imaginative rendering, shuffling and dropping scenes, exercising liberties with the script, and effectively using camera angles to frame characters. 

And although films and these streaming events have filled a theatrical void in this pandemic era, a live performance (with lots of Covid precautions), such as Sweet Tea Shakespeare’s performances of Richard II and Henry IV (Part One) was a welcome screen break.

Sweet Tea Shakespeare’s productions are always lively affairs with musical entertainment prior to the show and at intermission, often providing commentary on the action. Performed in rep, these are the first two of the four history plays that chronicle the successive reigns of Richard II, Henry IV, and Henry V.

Performed at William Peace University’s Leggett Theatre, the set, used for both performances, was sparse with platforms breaking up the expanse and an unadorned chair serving as the throne. This uncluttered, open stage layout contributed to the smooth scene transitions and fine pacing. Costuming was basic with the cast wearing white henley shirts, dark pants, and boots. The addition of sashes or other outer garments not only helped to differentiate characters but was also particularly useful in designating familial ties and loyalties.

Director Aaron Alderman adhered to a mostly conventional rendering of these plays, with the exception of cross-gender casting in key roles, most notably Ris Harp as Hotspur and Laura Parker as Prince Hal. 

Harp’s Hotspur raged against injustice, striding about the stage like a WWE wrestler full of passionate pugnaciousness. Parker offered up a softer but no less powerful performance as the lively Prince Hal. Gliding around in scenes with seemingly carefree indifference, this young prince seemed fully aware of his impending role as heir to the throne even as he spent his time carousing, much to the dismay of his father, Henry IV. While Harp’s Hotspur was all energy and restlessness, Parker’s Hal was more nuanced, moving from youthful carelessness to maturity.

In addition, as Richard II, Brook North’s portrayal of a capricious and self-absorbed king contrasted greatly with Wade Newhouse’s portrayal of Henry Bolingbroke, who ultimately overthrows Richard II to become King Henry IV. Newhouse offers a more hesitant, reflective man who strives for justice.

Although several members of the ensemble played multiple roles in both productions and brought a spirited rendition to their characters, Mia Self was particularly outstanding. She brought the right amount of emotional pathos to her roles as the Duchess of Gloucester and Duchess of York in Richard II, and then exhibited fine comedic chops with her turns as Bushy and Mistress Quickly in Henry IV (Part One).

Tyler Gregory also brought a great deal of hilarity to the role of the roguish Falstaff, the boastful drinking companion of the young Prince Hal in Henry IV (Part One). He unharnessed the boisterousness of this colorful character, both physically as well as in his delivery. Dustin Britt was also quite funny in his numerous comedic roles in Richard II, but as Poins in Henry IV (Part One) he excelled. 

Watching the power struggles unfold and the debates about whether rebellion is ever legitimate, it’s easy to draw connections with what is currently happening in this country and around the world, which is why even though these dramas were crafted almost 500 years ago, they somehow still feel incredibly relevant. 

Sweet Tea Shakespeare’s productions of Richard II and Henry IV (Part One) are available for streaming. For more information visit https://sweetteashakespeare.com/henriad-shakespeare-plays-streaming/.

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