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Stephen Jackman-Torkoff as King Richard II with members of the company in Richard II. Stratford Festival 2023. Photo by David Hou.Ted Belton/Handout

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  • Title: Richard II
  • Written by: William Shakespeare, adaptation by Brad Fraser, conceived by Jillian Keiley
  • Director: Jillian Keiley
  • Actors: Stephen Jackman-Torkoff, Jordin Hall, Emilio Vieira, Michael Spencer-Davis, David Collins, Sarah Orenstein
  • Company: Stratford Festival
  • Venue: Tom Patterson Theatre
  • City: Stratford, Ont.
  • Year: Runs to Sep. 28

The theme of this year’s Stratford Festival season is Duty vs. Desire, and so far no production has illustrated that more effectively than Jillian Keiley’s bold, brash, yet not-quite-fully realized Richard II.

In Keiley’s concept, the flamboyantly out Plantagenet ruler (Stephen Jackman-Torkoff) has slacked off on his royal duties and succumbed to his desires. What better period to set it in than the sexually permissive late ’70s and early ’80s? And what better writer to tap for an adaptation than Brad Fraser, whose past works – including Poor Super Man and Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love – prove he’s no stranger to provocative queer stories?

Fraser has set this production near the end of an era. Disco is still blaring, bathhouses are crowded and everyone who is anyone is shaking their leather-clad booties at the soon-to-close Studio 54. This is probably the first Stratford production of a Shakespeare play that begins with a full-on disco number, complete with sexy, strutting choreography (by Cameron Carver) and a crowd-surfing king who – decked out in white ruffles, pearls and platform shoes – seems less monarch than monarch butterfly.

After Henry Bolingbroke (Jordin Hall) and Thomas Mowbray (Tyrone Savage) argue over the recent death of the Duke of Gloucester – a death the king himself likely had a hand in – Richard banishes them. In response, Bolingbroke, later Henry IV, gathers forces and begins his steady march back toward England.

Richard, believing in the divine right of kings, feels invincible. Coddled and pampered all his life – he was crowned at 10, remember – he’s so out of touch with the people that he doesn’t understand that by taxing and plundering the wealth of England’s nobles to amass his army he’s causing unrest, paving the way for Bolingbroke’s victory.

And besides, he’s spending most of his time dancing the night away or, in one of set designer Michael Gianfrancesco’s many jaw-dropping visual scenes, grinding up against his cousin Aumerle (Emilio Vieira) in a convincing replica of a steamy hot tub, achieved with overlapping folds of fabric, dry ice and the burbling water in Don Ellis’s sound design.

Fraser surrounds this Richard with fawning enablers, minor courtiers such as Bushy (Andrew Robinson) and Green (John Wamsley), now acting as his gay wingmen.

And speaking of wings, also present are a chorus of angels, who seem less servants of God than stylish, earthly hangers-on, attracted to the king’s power and charisma. Fraser attempts to wrest even more meaning from these winged creatures near the end, when he has Richard mention Icarus, but this added reference feels forced and doesn’t make much thematic sense. Richard, after all, hasn’t been too ambitious, but rather not ambitious enough.

Fraser has also cut one of the play’s most familiar monologues, the one in which Richard’s uncle – and Bolingbroke’s father – John of Gaunt (David Collins) decries the leasing out of England with his “This sceptred isle” speech. As if to compensate for that, Keiley stages Gaunt’s death scene with stark, horrific power.

Fraser’s biggest change, however, is in giving Richard, who’s already chastely married to Queen Isabel (Hannah Wigglesworth), a sexual playmate, and possible soulmate, in Aumerle. When Bolingbroke ascends the throne and takes Richard’s former supporters away from him, one of them is the Duke of York (Michael Spencer-Davis), Aumerle’s father. Fraser uses this to concoct a story that’s reminiscent of Oscar Wilde’s betrayal by his lover Lord Alfred Douglas.

The problem with these additions is that Keiley and Fraser haven’t pushed their concept far enough. While Richard and his followers are clad in ostentatious, outrageous partywear – at one point the king sports a sequined codpiece fashioned after his symbol, the white stag – Bolingbroke and his advisors look decent enough in their rich, shiny fabrics befitting their station. (Bretta Gerecke is the costume designer.)

How much more effective would it have been to hint at the conservative wave that would soon sweep over the U.S. in the ’80s, begun by Ronald Reagan and his rhetoric about “family values”? Not only would that have been timely – consider the recent challenges to abortion and trans rights – but it would have provided a clearer sense of the changing times and clashing ideologies.

In this adaptation, it also makes little sense for the Bishop of Carlisle, played with stern power by Steve Ross, to support Richard. Wouldn’t the church turn away from this version of the king? And an AIDS subplot featuring characters we barely know feels like an afterthought; if only we could follow these characters and see how they fared in Reagan’s world.

Still, there’s no denying the electric performance by Jackman-Torkoff in the lead role. Over the years they’ve shown glimpses of their dramatic range in plays such as Black Boys, Trout Stanley and their recent Dora-nominated turn as a poetic canine in Fifteen Dogs.

Here, they are fully at ease whether writhing on the dance floor or speaking Shakespearean verse. Richard remains an enigmatic figure, and in the final couple of acts Jackman-Torkoff elicits pity and makes you wonder how much their monarch understands what they’ve done.

As Aumerle, Vieira turns what on the page is a thankless minor role into a conflicted, sympathetic figure. And Spencer-Davis and Sarah Orenstein, as a cleverly gender-reversed Countess of Northumberland, bring their years of Shakespeare experience to effective use; every line reading is clear and focused in a production that can often lose its way.

Keiley makes fine use of the narrow playing area of the Tom Patterson Theatre. When Richard hands over the crown to Bolingbroke, the director stages the moment as if it’s on a fashion runway, with a despairing, forlorn Richard prostrate and reluctant to give up his identity.

More moments such as this – when style and substance work together rather than at odds with each other – and this Richard II could have emerged victorious.

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a critic’s pick designation across all coverage. (Television reviews, typically based on an incomplete season, are exempt.)

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