I feel sad when Richard III dies. He may be a bad character, but he is fun bad. We are meant to see him in that way. When the play begins, Richard III speaks directly to the audience. In most productions, this takes place alone, with Richard inviting the audience into his world, to take his side in the ensuing events, to help him in his quest. We do help Richard III. We help him by keeping his secrets. There is a strange phenomenon in theater productions, as opposed to TV or movies, when a villain is the main character. If I am watching a movie of Macbeth, for example, there is nothing I can do to stop Duncan’s murder. It is not so in the theater. I could, in theory, jump up on stage, shout and scream at the actor playing Macbeth, warning him of the evil plot to kill him and his children. I would get dragged out of the theater and possibly arrested, but so what? I would have stopped a murder. But I do not. No one does. No one ever does. That is one thing that makes theatrical productions like Macbeth or Richard III so powerful. Every single member of the audience commits a terrible sin of omission. We do not try to stop the murders. We are linked to Richard III (and Macbeth), not purely by charisma, but by blood; their sins are our sins as well.
It was a surprise then when Great Lakes Theater Festival’s production of Richard III did not begin with Richard alone on stage, but rather with Richard addressing the audience in the midst of a decent size crowd addressing the new king. Before he begins to speak, the audience watches the casket of the previous king taken out, and they change the numerals at the top of the stage to the name and number of the new king. This was my favorite devise in the production. It can be difficult to keep track of who is reigning when, so it’s helpful to have some sort of memory device. (Of course, Shakespeare’s audience would have known the list of kings as surely as Americans (should) know that Gerald Ford followed Richard Nixon.)
Watching the play in the theater, I was struck by how funny the play seemed. The actor who played Richard III did a very good job of finding the funny, or at least dramatic irony in the play. The audience was willing to laugh, but the laughs never felt inappropriate. It felt, instead, completely appropriate. We were sharing the laugh with Richard at how his plans seemed to be falling right into place. For example, after Richard successfully seduces Lady Anne over her husband’s dead body, he turns to the audience and asks “Was ever a woman in this humor wooed?” The audience laughed, and I think that this is the right response to this scene. Another hilarious scene is when Richard III plays the part of the pious man when the crowd come to Richard and demand that he become king. It is hilarious in its hypocrisy. The actor was also great at finding those moments and inviting the audience into the joke. He had enough humor and charisma to win me over to his side, no matter how many terrible things he did.
I was fortunate enough (thanks to a friend!) to be sitting very close to the front of the stage for this performance. It was a wonderful opportunity to be reminded of the intimacy of theater. I could see clearly how the actors spat when the spoke, and I was partially afraid that I would get spit upon myself. Even the closest close-up in the movies cannot create that sensation in the theater.
Another device was when Margaret returns every time someone she cursed died. This was a risky move, but I felt that it paid off. It especially pays off when the princes die in the tower; she alters her routine ever so slightly, and it definitely caught me off guard. I was also struck by how the imagery works well with this part of the season of Great Lakes. For the fall season, Great Lakes is showing Richard III in repertoire with Sweeny Todd, a musical with no shortage of blood. The imagery of the red paint (blood) flowing like a butcher shop calls to mind Sweeny slicing throats at his barber shop.
The play ends with a colossal battle. Because it was performed in modern dress, the warfare they use is modern. They wear fatigues, shoot automatic weapons, and throw grenades. I was curious to see how they would dispatch Richard III in light of a preshow talk. Apparently, there is no stage direction that says Richard III dies. The speaker said that this is because Shakespeare borrowed heavily from the vice characters (lust, gluttony, wrath, etc) that appeared in the mystery and morality plays. These plays, which were banned shortly after Shakespeare’s childhood, had characters portraying vices, and they did not die. The audience knew that they would be back. Unfortunately, the Great Lakes Theater Festival did kill Richard III. In fact, it was a bit of overkill. It reminded me of the murder of Rasputin.
Richard III can be a perilous play. Yes, there is a lot of action, but there are also a lot of characters and a lot of history to cover. There is also a dangerous amount of exposition. A production must find a way to help their audience understand how all of the characters fit together. I felt that the motifs worked very well; I never felt confused. Most of all, I felt sad when Richard III died. I can only hope that, like vice, he’s not really dead. Just like King Arthur, who is supposed to return at the moment of Britain’s greatest need, I hope Richard III will return when things are boring to serve as an agent of chaos.
Photos Courtesy of Great Lakes Theater Festival.