The Folger Theatre’s production of “Richard III“ is the first production the institution has ever staged in the round. As the audience surrounds the stage, their eyes are all turned inward, to a center that cannot hold. But in this production, the complex character shattering under the strain of internal divisions isn’t the titular King; it’s the land he rules.
From his first entrance, Richard III (Drew Cortese) seems oddly unburdened for Shakespeare’s antihero. His limp is a loping skip, so exaggerated that I wondered if it was meant to be an affectation employed by Richard-the-character to discomfit his targets. However, that kind of artifice would be out of step with the unusual forthrightness of his spite in this production. Whether he’s seducing Anne, accusing the Queen, or ordering the execution of Hastings, he is quick and vicious, never charming or manipulative.
It seemed like the audience’s unique perspective was being carried over from his soliloquies and asides to the entire text of the play. We witnessed Richard’s naked contempt, even as he presumably presented a more flattering face to his targets.
But that hypothesis was disproved by Act III, Scene VII, when the audience was finally explicitly cast as Richard’s audience. As his accomplices, Buckingham and Catesby, whip up the Lord Mayor and the people of London to acclaim Richard as King, the Mayor stands in the aisle, and the audience represents the throng he leads.
There should be no asides in this scene, since any moment that Richard drops the mask and reveals his ugliness to the audience, he would also be revealing it to his subjects. However, this Richard continued to roll his eyes, sneer his lines, and exaggeratedly pretended to pray throughout the scene.
I began to wonder if I had been mistaken. Perhaps the audience had never seen a private side of Richard, and he really had been this snide and unsubtle to all the characters from the beginning. If this Richard can succeed—by pure brutality—there’s something rotten in the state of England.
“Richard III” is part of a tetralogy of history plays by Shakespeare that span the Wars of the Roses. The play opens in peacetime, as Richard informs us, “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York” but, in this production, the kingdom is not at rest.
When King Edward IV tries to mend relationships between rival factions in his court, all the nobles in this production openly scorn the attempt. A courtier kisses the hand of the queen and then pointedly wipes his lips clean once the king has passed on. The queen herself uses the bows of the nobles to humiliate them.
In the Folger’s staging, Richard isn’t set apart from the court by his vices, only by using his anger to orchestrate his own advancement, rather than waste it on fleeting insults, like the rest of the nobility. More than in most productions, there was no innocent foil to contrast Richard with.
Richmond, the man who defeats Richard and succeeds him as King Henry VII, appears a silent, spectral presence for most of the show. The only selfless act we witness in the show occurs when the Duke of Clarence, praying in prison, cries out:
O God! if my deep prayers cannot appease thee,
But thou wilt be avenged on my misdeeds,
Yet execute thy wrath in me alone,
O, spare my guiltless wife and my poor children!
Clarence prays, but the other victims of Richard, tutored by Queen Margaret, learn to curse. The miseries the characters recite feel cyclic. As Margaret reminds the queen that succeeded her, in station and in misery:
I had an Edward, till a Richard kill’d him;
I had a Harry, till a Richard kill’d him:
Thou hadst an Edward, till a Richard kill’d him;
Thou hadst a Richard, till a Richard killed him
The nobles and courtiers of the Folger production are steeped in despair. Richard’s savagery doesn’t need to be masked in this world; he is unique only because he uses his villainy to advance himself, rather than just to spite his enemies. There’s technically more hope in Richard’s murders than in Margaret’s curses.
At the close of the show, the audience lacks a sense of resolution. Since this Richard is straightforwardly wicked, his agonized dream and struggles with his conscience are not convincing. By this point, we’re not waiting to see how Richard will cope with his legacy of sin, but how England will.
All we receive is a glimpse of King Henry VII, victorious, crowned, and betrothed to the Queen that would unite the houses of York and Lancaster. But, having begun the show in the false peace that follows a battle, it’s hard for the audience to believe that removing Richard is enough to heal the nation.