Dear friends and readers,
This is to add to a chorus of praise for the production of Richard III playing this month through early March of Shakespeare’s Richard III at the Folger. Izzy and I saw it tonight and by the time we were into the second half, enjoyed it enormously, were thoroughly absorbed.
As might be seen by my comparative qualification, I don’t quite agree with the estatic insights some reviewers have been attributing to the play. I’ve seen it so many times, and Izzy almost as many, and we agreed we’ve seen many a superior one: to name just a few, Ian McKellen as Richard III as a Hitler type in the film (and Jim and I also saw it on stage); Laurence Oliver’s film (where Ralph Richardson as Buckingham managed to steal the show); the Washington Shakespeare’s great version (a parable about politicians) a few years ago now at the Arlington theater; one I saw years ago with Stacey Keach as Richard III. The play is popular — it is just deliciously over-the-top for an ensemble cast and rich for a great actor) and frequently done in part or as a whole. This production was disappointing during the first half. The declaiming style used throughout could not accommodate the black and nervy humor of the first half: many jokes just thrown away and lost. Richard’s “We are not safe” to Clarence as Clarence is taken off to be murdered at Richard’s instigation fell flat.
There is something effeminate (a fine thing to be by the way) in Richard III (as there is Richard II) and this was erased utterly — can’t have that in this macho male world of long leather coats, and heavy armor and weapons. In fact the costumes recalled the way we see police dressed in the US when they attack crowds (say Occupy groups) or shut down and swarm all over a city (say Boston). Cortese was superb
but he also seemed unwilling to unbend and the worst scene of the play (though it was effective as Shakespeare’s scene is striking) was the one where Richard wooes Lady Anne (Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan) in front of her husband’s bleeding corpse.
Cortese kept his distance and his dignity; what he should have done is sidled up to her, and engaged physically with her, alluring and luring. They didn’t even obey the stage directions which include a comment about how she had thrown the sword he gave her to push through his heart on the ground: they kept the line, but she didn’t throw the sword until well after he uttered the line.
The nervousness of the usual scenes in the first half often leads to cutting the second half where the mood become direct and hard-hitting and this is where this production came into its own. What it had to add to the all the productions I’ve seen before was it was utterly traditional — as we might imagine it. In fact they risked slight parody (a la Beyond the Fringe) as they marched on and off the stage, declaiming at one another at the top of their voices with their bodies just writhing and just standing in place. No lines were left out, no scenes cut.
The reviews I’ve read have strangely left out two important themes of the production: the way characters were killed was in imitation of Sweeney Todd, that modern neurotic nightmare of slaughter. There were squares and triangles in the floor which would open up and the assassin would come along and slit the person’s throat, or pull them down and we’d hear some sort of thump, clang; the repetition of this was effective. These holes in the ground allowed for continual allusions to the finding of the much decayed corpse of Richard III in 2012 in a parking lot in Leicester, England. The program notes were all about this, and this corpse & parking lot were continually evoked on stage. The lights underground were parking lot lights. The corpse of Anne’s husband was wrapped like a mummy one finds in a excavation of a site where savage rituals were performed.
A contemporary gothic all right.
This evocation may have been meant (the program notes suggest this) to remind the audience that although this version of Richard III as malign and deformed may be a Tudor myth, based on More’s biography intended to please Henry VIII; nonetheless, a terrible reality gave rise to this fascinating dramatization of the criminal and desperate behavior of the aristocrats of the UK in the 15th century. The women were the desperate mourners (Nanna Ingvarsson came through as a great actress once again as the Duchess of York in her set-tos with her vile son, Richard) or worked upon to give in in order to salvage something or appear too. Richard’s seducing of Queen Elizabeth (Jula Motyka) paralleled his seducing of Anne:
He is offering her a replacement of a possible future and safety if she will allow him to marry her daughter, Princess Elizabeth (Jenna Berk). I liked especially that the production conveyed by costumes and gestures that when Henry VII took over and the Princess is brought by her mother to stand by his side, that we not having any improvement. This man is such another perhaps as Richard was — whose death has a certain desperate pathos – throat slit just as he goes down the hole and cries “a horse, my horse … my kingdom for a horse … “. A parable for our time, and depiction of how the real corpse that was found got there.
I could see the audience was not gone on the production until the second half either. The actors brought the audience in as if they were London citizens and the audience at one point obliged by clapping. People like to be amused and there was laughter at the some obvious stage business like jokes during Richard’s hypocritical refusal of the crown. Some of the best secondary male performances came out here. Richard Sheridan Willis as Stanley in dark-colored glasses with his sheaf of papers and fear for his son but determined betrayal of Richard III evoked a modern day powerful minister backing up whoever is in power by whatever means necessary.
So don’t miss it; it’s another winner for this new Shakespeare all the time group at the Folger. As to our personal experience, see Under the Sign of Sylvia.