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Acting Out Photo by David Hou, courtesy of the Stratford Festival

Acting Out

An extravagantly queer production of Richard II claps back at Shakespeare purists' conservatism.

England’s king rises from a shimmering hot tub bordered by angels decked out in leather and pearls. Clouds of steam rise, caressing his bare chest as he passes a joint to the scruffy man soaking opposite. The king then dives beneath the “water” — white fabric, pulled taut by the angels. When he resurfaces, the two men are close together, close enough to kiss, a physical connection that explodes into iambs: “What’s in the brain that ink may character that hath not figured to thee, my true spirit? Nothing, sweet boy; but yet like prayers divine I must each day say o’er the very same, counting no new thing old, thou mine, I thine.” As they begin to fuck against the wall of the tub, those last four words become an impassioned refrain, a plea for more, a cry of love, a moan without sense. The music swells. “Thou mine, I thine.” The two accelerate. “Thou mine, I thine.” Reality warps. “Thou mine, I thine. Thou mine, I thine. Thou mine, I thine.”

That king is the titular character of Shakespeare’s Richard II, as imagined by the Stratford Festival’s invigorating new adaptation. Riffing on the history play’s queer subtext, stalwart Canadian playwright Brad Fraser — known for his uncompromising theatrical depictions of sex and violence in plays like Martin Yesterday and Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love — envisions Richard in a passionate gay affair with his cousin Aumerle. Conceived and directed by Jillian Keiley at Stratford’s opulent Tom Patterson Theatre, this version of Richard II transplants the setting from its origins in fourteenth-century England to New York’s famously exclusive disco nightclub Studio 54 in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Aumerle’s role is taken up by Emilio Vieira, in his sixth season at the festival, while Richard is played by Black non-binary actor Stephen Jackman-Torkoff — a significant casting move from a company that, prior to the pandemic, had never showcased an openly trans performer on its stages. (The character remains male.)

A mainstay of both international theatrical repertoire and the English literary canon, Shakespeare is, almost necessarily, thought of as open to interpretation. Homoeroticism and gay sexuality have been identified in much of his writing, from the gender antics of Twelfth Night to the amorous words traded by a pair of Roman soldiers in Coriolanus. But in practice, attempts to contextualize the socio-political themes in his work have often been met with resistance: in 2021, for example, US high school teachers who had been approaching Shakespeare with a focus on aspects like gender or race were criticized as “woke” by media pundits. Similar stones have been launched at a recent production of Titus Andronicus at England’s Globe Theatre that modifies the text in order to contextualize the play’s racist language. These tensions, which underpin some of the negative responses to Stratford’s Richard II, have only increased in stakes of late: a March 2022 Florida law restricting classroom instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation has led to some schools only teaching specific excerpts from Shakespeare in fear that the plays’ pun-filled explorations of erotic desire might draw legal trouble.

But Stratford’s Richard II goes beyond theory: it brings the text’s queer elements to vivid, embodied life. Throughout, it demonstrates a desire for subversion more common to translated productions of Shakespeare’s plays than those performed in the English language, which often highlight the playwright’s universality instead of committing to any specific conceptual direction. By combining fantastical design with explicitly queer scenes forged from Shakespearean excerpts, Fraser and Keiley prioritize the metaphorical over the literal, and offer a production that swerves from coke-laced exuberance to emotionally dense tragedy. Their patchwork approach activates the queerness that some scholars see as inherent to Shakespeare’s plays, and puts the play in direct conversation with both the 1970s and today. By engaging with the past, Richard II looks toward the future. 

Shakespeare’s Richard II follows the last two years of the titular king’s life, which saw him go from royalty to prisoner. It follows history fairly closely, but, like a Hollywood biopic, takes a few dramatic liberties: the timing of events is condensed, and Richard is murdered rather than starved. The broad plot of Fraser’s adaptation matches this trajectory: it traces the monarch’s political fall to his cousin Henry Bolingbroke, who would go on to become Henry IV. Richard’s copious overspending means he’s already unpopular at the play’s start; when he goes against the advice of his inner circle and steals Bolingbroke’s inheritance to finance a questionable war in Ireland, this unpopularity crescendos to rebellion. Overwhelmed by the sheer numbers who rush to Bolingbroke’s side, Richard surrenders the crown swiftly, with much drama but little fight.

Fraser stitches together abbreviated sections of the original script with snippets from Shakespeare’s poems and other plays to create a few new scenes: from “Venus and Adonis,” he uses the line “Stray lower, where pleasant fountains lie,” to reference oral sex, for instance, and gives plenty of space to the dialogue of the two Coriolanus soldiers, which includes the word “fisting.” But Fraser’s big change is the affair: while a couple of short scenes featuring Richard’s wife Isabel stay in, Aumerle, his political-ally-turned-lover, jumps in prominence to second lead, with Shakespeare’s famously queer-coded sonnets providing the text for many teary scenes of romance between the two men. Finally, in a brutal twist, it’s now Aumerle, rather than cut side character Exton, who Bolingbroke manipulates into killing the deposed and imprisoned Richard.

Since Fraser chose to keep the language largely Shakespearean, Keiley and choreographer Cameron Carver rely on movement and design to update the setting. Between the spoken scenes, Bacchanalian choreography engulfs the stage. Sequined ensemble members in angel wings twirl glowing batons and lord over the dance floor with platform-shoe struts, at least until Richard’s around — when he arrives, they flock to their monarch, flying him about the space in towering lifts. The sequences are extravagant, glorious renderings of Richard’s excesses. Stratford regular Bretta Gerecke’s costume design heightens this sense of surfeit: Richard’s allies are covered in leather, mesh, glitter, jewellery and overbusy patterns. The man himself wears a crop top, a layered pearl necklace, frilly pants and a luxurious fur cape — all in white, because the historical Richard II’s royal badge was a white stag.

Jackman-Torkoff is the eighth person to play Richard at Stratford, and the first who isn’t a man. As demonstrated by their explosive performance in Fifteen Dogs at Crow’s Theatre earlier this year, they’re one of Canada’s most physically liberated actors, and that freedom is on full display here. Though performers in English-language Shakespeare productions can tend toward staticity, often standing still for entire speeches, Jackman-Torkoff is constantly in motion. They follow their impulses around the stage, from crouching on the ground in despair to exultantly jumping up and down on mirror-coated rectangular prisms. Jackman-Torkoff’s approach to the text is similarly unrestrained — with cheeky playfulness, they break up the meter, make verbal puns (the name “Norfolk” becomes “Nor-fuck”) and, in a few instances, even ad-lib in contemporary parlance (“Sexy, sexy, sexy, oh!”), a rarity with Shakespeare. Before Bolingbroke takes over and his good fortune ends, Jackman-Torkoff’s Richard seems totally in control: of the theatre, his kingdom and his destiny. 

One of Fraser’s most dramatic interpolations is a subplot that mirrors the AIDS crisis. Secondary character Willoughby contracts a mysterious disease and weakens, leaving his friend Ross unsure of how to safely care for him. For the duo’s one long scene, Fraser crafts new dialogue out of material from a sonnet (“My love is as a fever”), King Lear (“‘Tis the time’s plague when madmen lead the blind”), The Winter’s Tale (“I cannot name the disease; and it is caught of you that yet are well”) and Julius Caesar (“A friend should bear his friend’s infirmities”). The plotline draws a parallel between Richard’s fall from power and the AIDS carnage that began the year after Studio 54’s closure in 1980. When we last see Willoughby, he’s crumpled on the ground, near death, and every set piece is gone from the stage. This void-like emptiness is almost spectral after the club’s bright ecstasy. 

Rumours about the historical Richard II’s sexuality have circulated ever since chronicler Thomas Walsingham accused him of being in a relationship of “obscene intimacy” with courtier Robert de Vere. The chronicle containing the charge was published in the late 1390s, after the king had started to fall from public favour (he was eventually deposed in 1399). Though this is hardly conclusive evidence of the king’s sexuality, it’s something, and this production is not the first to make the character unambiguously gay. A 2013 Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) production starring David Tennant similarly transformed Aumerle into Richard’s lover and assassin. But that production was textually faithful, and the romance between the pair only went as far as a kiss. Keiley and Fraser’s sweeping approach, which includes a full-fledged sex scene, aligns more closely with contemporary perspectives on queering Shakespeare. Instead of considering the interaction between Shakespeare and queer theory to be one-way — contemporary readers projecting modern ideas onto older texts — the director-playwright duo follow the path of scholars who propose a more reciprocal relationship, in which Shakespeare contributes to queer theory as much as queer theory contributes to Shakespeare. 

This angle forms the basis of the essay collection Shakesqueer: A Queer Companion to the Complete Works of Shakespeare, which features queer readings of all thirty-nine of Shakespeare’s plays. While texts that hint more directly at queerness, like The Two Noble Kinsmen and As You Like It, often receive extra attention when discussing the queerness of the playwright, in Shakesqueer every work is equally deserving of analysis. Traditionally, Shakespeare’s relationship to queer theory and queer representation has been predicated on the notion that because he did not have access to modern queer theory, and censorship meant his characters couldn’t be explicitly gay, these themes cannot be meaningfully identified in his work. But, as the anthology’s editor Madhavi Menon argues, if we look past these boundaries, the queerness of Shakespeare reveals itself for analysis. 

Stratford’s Richard II similarly restores Shakespeare’s queer agency. By using the playwright’s own words to create gay love scenes, Fraser uncovers what was there all along. And by jamming together different temporalities — medieval plot, Elizabethan verse, disco setting, contemporary-feeling costumes — Shakespeare queers the 1970s just as much as the 1970s queer him.

The Stratford Festival was founded in 1952 with the goal of presenting high-grade Shakespeare productions grounded in British aesthetics. Though it has since become reliant on productions of musicals to stay popular (they draw better crowds), the playwright is still well-represented: he wrote four of this season’s thirteen shows. Historically, Stratford performers have adhered to the tenets of emotional realism: an acting style that emphasizes characters’ psychologies, encourages actors to “disappear” into roles and, in the case of Shakespeare, stresses the importance of polished verse speaking. This approach, which grew out of European modernism and parallels that of prestigious English groups like the RSC, has trained Stratford’s patronage to expect productions in which artists subsume themselves into the playwright’s original vision.

Consequently, it isn’t entirely unsurprising that not all audiences have responded warmly to Keiley’s less faithful angle. “What a disappointment. Please return to staging Shakespeare’s plays as they were intended to be performed,” reads a comment under the trailer, while a critical Facebook commenter notes that they “want to see the play not fifteen minutes of rave disco with petting. Don’t recommend it at all.” And over on the Stratford Festival Review website discussion board: “As a gay man, I thought they really overdid the whole gay thing. Yes, he’s gay, we get it … get on with it.” Despite these protestations, other comments praise the production’s freshness and vibrancy, remarking on Jackman-Torkoff’s performance and the energy it stirred in the crowd: it was “full of great dexterity in bringing the gorgeous poetry to heartbreaking life,” writes another Stratford Festival Reviews respondee.

A large point of debate among critics was the friction between the 1970s setting and historical plot, as well as the production’s deviance from the original text. In Ontario Stage, a theatre review website, Kelly Monaghan comments that “this Richard II is gay. Very gay. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Except perhaps that it wasn’t quite what Shakespeare had in mind.” And in Stage Door, Christopher Hoile rates the production two out of five, claiming that the main reason to see the show is “to have an example … of how directors and adapters can ruin classic works,” and lamenting that the clash between Keiley’s backdrop and the original text “makes both the dialogue and the disco setting seem ridiculous.” Jesse Green of the New York Times seemed to agree, calling it a “mixed-metaphor mess.” For other critics, these frictions are essential to the production’s success: the Toronto Star’s Karen Fricker argues that “this mingling of time and place enhances the production’s queerness: it’s a both/and, not an either/or.”

This mixed response reflects larger tensions around the director-playwright relationship. Some believe that the director, along with the team of artists they coordinate, is only there to realize what’s already on the page; text, not concept, should drive all elements of performance. Maybe because his work is so often encountered in literature classrooms, which tend to encourage treating texts like static objects, many people feel strongly that Shakespeare productions should strictly adhere to this approach.

This is especially true in the UK, where his plays account for 10 percent of all theatre attendance. In a 2021 article for the Stage, a British theatre publication, Lyn Gardner asks prominent company leaders whether “too much reverence is holding UK theatremakers back” from taking risks with Shakespeare. She found, by and large, the answer is yes. Many replies cited the intimidation factor: if a director takes a risk with Shakespeare and fails, it’ll be seen as their fault, whereas with a new or less canonized play, the script might take the blame. Director Robert Icke pointed out that many Shakespearean traditions have little to do with the script — the word “balcony” does not appear in Romeo and Juliet, for instance—and instead come from performance history, so who knows how Shakespeare would want something staged? 

Despite scattered appreciation for experimentation, some critics choose to push reverence when faced with change. In a review of West End theatre @sohoplace’s heavily abbreviated As You Like It, critic Dominic Cavendish makes the conservative position clear in the Telegraph: “In 2023, please let’s have a little more Shakespeare as he wrote it, not as directors fancy it.” And headlines framing such productions as somehow failing the playwright are common: Cavendish calls the 2021 Globe production of Measure for Measure “yet another disservice to Shakespeare”, while Clive Davis says in a review for the Times that the RSC’s modern dress production of Julius Caesar is “Shakespeare stripped of nobility,” as if the playwright himself was a Roman emperor. 

But the source text remains the same while the artists change. What makes a production unique is the real-life team putting it on, which is unlikely to be identically assembled again. Theatre that centres what the people behind it want to say about the world around them is theatre with relevancy. When this methodology is applied to a classic, things like queer theory and social critique enter into conversation with the play’s performance history — and, in the case of Richard II, actual history. Keiley invited Fraser to work on the show after reading his memoir All the Rage because she thought its arc resembled her conceptualization of Richard: Fraser, too, partied hard in the 1980s before losing many of his friends to AIDS. So Fraser is Richard. But because Jackman-Torkoff’s assured performance takes such control of the character, they are also him. Both artists, along with Keiley, get the chance to reclaim the character. These overlapping interpretations, when mixed with Shakespeare’s text, give the production its unique texture and make it far more interesting than a performance solely concerned with respecting its original source. 

Despite attempts of some critics and audiences to keep Shakespeare traditional, there’s a longstanding culture of productions oriented toward experimentation. This is especially true on an international scale, where translation means that every production is already an adaptation of sorts, so it’s easier for artists to take ownership of the plays.

German theatres, for instance, put on Shakespeare almost entirely for the sake of reimagining it. In theatre company Münchner Kammerspiele’s 2017 Hamlet, directed by Christopher Rüping, the titular character doesn’t even appear onstage. The production is set after every major character is dead except for Hamlet’s friend Horatio, who is left to re-enact the plot of Hamlet alone by rotating through the different roles. If that wasn’t disorienting enough, Horatio himself is played by three actors, who are all on stage for the majority of the show. Intense design heightens the surrealness of this retelling: the show begins with six-and-a-half minutes of the actors dumping buckets of blood on the floor to a maximalist soundscape, a gesture that’s both a visual representation of massacre and an establishment of the production’s avant-garde ethos.

Or take Mendoza, a 2012 adaptation of Macbeth from Mexico City theatre company Los Colochos Teatro, directed and co-adapted by Juan Carrillo. The show, set during the Mexican Revolution, reimagines Macbeth as Mendoza, a fictional general who murders his way to the top of the army. The design of the set is strikingly minimal, mostly bedsheets and folding chairs bearing Corona logos. The small-scale production uses audience participation to implicate viewers in the play’s politics — near the end, a few lucky viewers are called upon to join the firing squad facing Mendoza. The typically tragic ending is quickly turned satirical by the actors sharing beers with the crowd in celebration of a free Mexico—where, they joke, things like this no longer happen.

Compared to these more experimental productions, Keiley’s Richard II is rather tame. Although the ground it covers is mostly new for the festival, convention makes itself felt in how reverently much of the text is spoken. It does, however, share a similar commitment to challenging audiences. On the festival’s website, the play proclaims itself as a “revolutionary adaptation,” indicating its desire to upset tradition. A program note by assistant director Kwaku Okyere affirms this: “Placing the exultation of [Blackness and queerness] within the context of a well-known Shakespeare play is truly remarkable, and, more importantly, incredibly subversive.” Though it’s reasonable to be skeptical of artists calling their own work groundbreaking, Stratford’s long Shakespearean history means that this production’s deviations from the norm are doubly noticeable, so it is sure to jolt the festival’s regular audiences. And Shakespeare purists will be the ones most aware of Fraser’s cuts and insertions: while to a less familiar audience the text will likely sound Elizabethan enough, every Coriolanus quote and abbreviated speech will stick out to the obsessed, forcing them to grapple with what’s been changed.

Stratford’s Richard II isn’t queer on the one hand and disloyal to Shakespeare on the other. It’s queer because it’s disloyal. The production combines Shakespeare’s language with a sweaty dancefloor of interlocking temporalities and themes. This approach is messy, somewhat confusing and, on a logical level, straining, but the show’s immense beauty lies in that very jaggedness — in imperfect dramaturgy and medieval duels rendered as shirtless wrestling matches under flashing lights. Its daring approach will hopefully liberate the festival to take even more risks with Shakespeare, and affirms classical theatre’s value as a vessel for artists to think through contemporary ideas by communing with the past.

Back on stage, the party roars. Though outside revolution is bubbling, in the club it’s a night like any other. The music bumps — drums kick, falsettos ping, horns punch — and the angels line the dancefloor, celebrating the everlasting rule of their divine king. But then a hulking wall of suited men cuts through the darkness. They’re quick to business: a bullet ricochets off a disco ball, and a wooden bat eviscerates mirrors. It’s a tedious apocalypse, grey and formal — such is the violence of conservatism. Richard gets there after the men have left, destruction his only greeting. His angels lie crumpled, lifeless: have they abandoned him? But the club’s far end is bleaker: his two best friends float, suspended, hanging by necks. No, there’s no comfort, Bolingbroke’s taken all — lives, lands, freedom. There’s nothing left, nothing but the end, the grave, the barren earth. Richard, struck low, demands a familiar balm to ease his pain — history, performed, perhaps not as it was, but as we want it. “For God’s sake,” he howls. “Let us sit upon the ground, and tell sad stories of the death of kings!” ⁂

Liam Donovan is a writer and theatre artist based in Toronto. He frequently writes reviews for Intermission.