Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Richard III

The last time I saw Shakespeare on stage was two years ago, when I went to Trinity Repertory Company's production of Hamlet. To prepare, I bought a copy of the play that had the traditional version on one side of the page, and a modern English translation on the other side.

While the antiquated language, with its puns and poetic quality, might have been child's play to the groundlings who attended performances of Shakespeare's plays in Elizabethan England, it wasn't exactly music to my 21st-century ears. So I was glad I read the play beforehand. I would definitely have been lost without it.

This time, for Trinity's Richard III, I didn't do any preparation, except for quickly scanning a summary of the plot. I'd seen Al Pacino's documentary Looking for Richard, in which Pacino, accompanied by some well-known fellow actors, talks about putting on the play and takes us through the story. I figured that would be enough. Sometimes it was. But at other times, I admit the words went right over my head.

The two-tiered set, designed by Michael McGarty, certainly put me in the right frame of mind. Most of the action in Richard III takes place on two huge, jagged gray concrete slabs, with a small crevice running between them that I was constantly afraid the actors were gong trip over. The stone slabs give the production a dark and gloomy look and set the tone for what we're about to see: a cold, hard and brutal story of a grab for political power.

The play starts off with soldiers carrying rifles and dressed in modern camouflage fatigues running onto the set. Shots ring out and there's lots of hand-t0-hand combat. It's all carefully choreographed by Craig Handel to the sounds of the Canadian indie rock band Arcade Fire. The scene is noisy, fast-paced, and when I think about, disturbingly thrilling. I'm fairly certain that real battles aren't nearly as neatly choreographed.

But that's only the beginning of the carnage. As we watch Richard, Duke of Glocester, scheme to make himself king he orders the killing of anyone who stands in his path, including his brother the Duke of Clarence, played by Stephen Berenson, and the two young sons of another sibling, King Edward IV, played by Johnny Lee Davenport. I've never seen so much killing in so many different ways on stage. People are shot, stabbed, strangled and that's not even the worst of it.

Brian McEleney does a superb job as Richard. He's described by Shakespeare as a hunchback, but in this production director Kevin Moriarty makes Richard's deformities the result of battle scars. He limps around on stage, with his leg in a brace and his arm in a sling. You know just from looking at Richard that he's not someone you want to cross. He sports a severe crew cut and there's no hint at all of softness in him.

Richard does his best to be charming and mask his true intentions. He walks into the audience to shake hands, hugs his two nephews, pretends to be pious. It seems to work for the people around him. But to me, he's still pretty creepy. There's something about his manner that you just don't trust. McEleney does a lot with his eyes, letting you know that it's all an act.

As thrilling as it was to watch McEleney become more power-mad, some parts of Richard III did drag a bit, especially in the 90-minute first act. The scene where Richard charms Angela Brazil's Lady Anne, getting her to marry him despite having been responsible for the deaths of her husband and father-in-law, seemed to go on too long. It was hard to keep all the kings, queens, princes, lords and ladies straight and figure out how they were related to one another. And some of the dialogue seemed to get lost, especially if the actor's back was turned.

For me, there was a point when he truly became a monster, and no twinkle in his eye could salvage it. Richard sends one of his henchmen to kill the little princes, imprisoned in the Tower of London, in a scene that is unbelievably disturbing. It would have been easy enough to have the killing take place completely off stage and have someone simply report back to Richard that the deed had been done. But Moriarty doesn't spare us. He lets us see Richard for who he is - totally amoral.

The younger prince, played on the day I saw the show by Max Theroux, is strangled. And he does a great death - his body immediately goes limp. It's over quickly. But the older prince, played by Chris Lysik, is murdered in a way that's a little more drawn out. It's done on the second tier of the stage, in a corner, with Lysik lying down, so we don't see his face, or actually see the killing. But we do see the murder weapon and we hear it being used against a small child, and it's very hard to take. Even though we know, of course, that it's not really happening, it's still sickening to imagine.

After the death of the princes, when Richard is finally crowned and makes his appearance as king, he's bathed in blindingly bright lights. It's quite an effect. But this moment of triumph is also the beginning of the end. He becomes increasingly isolated. He confronts Phyllis Kay's Queen Elizabeth, the widow of King Edward IV, and demands to marry her daughter. Kay is terrific as one of the few people who will not be bullied by Richard. She's repulsed and helps to raise an army against him. Before the climactic battle, he has a nightmare in which he's confronted by the ghosts of all those he's killed, and utters one of the play's most famous lines: "My kingdom for a horse."

One of the most fascinating parts of watching Richard III is how you almost become immune to the killing - there's so much of it. Plus, in the beginning, it's easy to be seduced by Richard, easy to believe that violence was simply how power got transferred in his time. Maybe he was no more evil than the kings who preceded him.

In the beginning, we're almost taken in by what Trinity Rep's artistic director Curt Columbus calls Richard's "gleeful villainy." Columbus says that the play "lures us over to the 'dark side,' at least vicariously, and provides us with the thrill of acting without conscience, without thought to morals or consequences, in a world that is shaped by power."

By the end, no one is taken in. While Richard III is an extreme example of absolute power, I think it does have something to say to a modern audience. We may not face evil on Richard's level, but we do have to be wary of political candidates who simply tell us what they think we want to hear.

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