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The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

At the other extreme from Jesus Christ Superstar – in terms of funding, exposure, and theatrical style – is the production of Richard III now playing at the Tom Patterson theatre. This has been described by many critics as overly traditional, but I don’t think they go far enough. This isn’t a traditional production; it’s, for lack of a better way of putting it, a reactionary production, a conscious attempt to access a medieval mode of storytelling, one that winds up highlighting aspects of the play that, in most modern productions, get short shrift, and giving less weight to what is generally treated as central.

Those two aspects are, respectively, the understanding of Richard’s (purportedly) bloody reign as part of providential history, which this production emphasizes, and a psychological emphasis on Richard’s self-loathing, which this production plays down relative to other Richards I’ve seen.

I should state from the start that Shakespeare’s Richard is entirely fictional, not to be compared to the historical Richard, last of the Plantagenets – but Shakespeare’s sources, in Holinshed and, before him, More, were no less fictions. Tudor mythology demanded that Richard be portrayed as an outright villain, a villain of exceptionally monstrous proportions, for whom no crime (including regicide and infanticide combined) was beyond the pale. I have no particular interest in wandering into the fens occupied by the White Boar’s Partisans, but suffice it to say that virtually any crime that has been imputed to Richard is subject to serious historical dispute.

But what Richard presented to Shakespeare was an interesting dramatic problem. Richard had to be portrayed as a monster. But his (perforce) righteous antagonist, Henry Tudor, couldn’t have a terribly complex portrayal, and only really comes into the story late in the game (he’s in France all through Richard’s rise). So, in a play about Richard, we’re going to be with the monster for most of the story. What will give us sympathy for the devil?

Shakespeare didn’t make Richard, like Marlowe’s Jew of Malta – or Aaron the Moor of Shakespeare’s Titus – a character who simply delighted in villainy. Rather, he gave him a fascinating psychology, rooted in self-loathing (even after he successfully woos Anne, he declares, “Upon my life she finds, although I cannot, / Myself to be a marvelous proper man.”) that, in turn, derives perhaps from his deformity, but more plainly from rejection by his mother (when Richard’s mother blesses him, she prays that he become virtuous, and Richard replies, “Amen; and make me die a good old man! / That is the butt-end of a mother’s blessing: / I marvel why her grace did leave it out”). This is the Richard that most productions focus on – a man who hates himself at first, flees confrontation with that self-loathing into unspeakable villainy, only to come face-to-face with it, magnified multiply by his numerous crimes, on the eve of his final battle.

But why does Richard succeed? Why is this man, who everyone around him recognizes is a villain – and everyone does; no one is deceived, except perhaps the Lord Mayor of London whose main qualification for the office seems to be precisely that he is pathetically easy to deceive – why is he able to claw his way to the top, even briefly?

A psychological answer would be that Richard is acutely attuned to the needs of everyone in the society around him – he zeroes in on what each of them must have, and provides it, from Anne who -rather like Guinevere in Camelot, who pouts, “will kith not kill their kin for me” – longs to be so beloved that monstrosities would be committed for her sake; to Hastings, who longs to see the Woodvilles put paid to; to Buckingham, who wants to be the kingmaker; to Tyrrel, who simply wants a chance to prove himself. And this aspect of Richard’s psychology is very clear in this production – I think particularly of two moments: when Richard calls Buckingham “my other self,” in this production it feels like flattery – just what Buckingham wants to hear; that he’s really on the “inside” – rather than a true recognition of a kindred spirit; and when Tyrrel returns from the murder of the princes in the tower, and Richard thanks him, in this production he reaches down and strokes Tyrrel’s chin, gently, caressing him – a creepy eroticization of Tyrrel’s crime that sent chills down my spine, and no doubt was exactly what Tyrrel, deep down, wanted as his chief reward.

But on another level, Richard succeeds because that is what he was sent to do. He is the scourge of God, sent to punish England for the crime of deposing Richard II over a century before, and for all the subsequent crimes that followed from that one. By the time Richard of Gloucester arrives on the scene, any vestige of reverence for the ideology of divine right has been expunged. Hastings will not see the crown “foul misplaced” – but that’s because of his personal loyalty to Edward. Buckingham hesitates to murder the princes – but he has no qualms about lying about their legitimacy to make their uncle king. Richard enters this world, looks around him at the rampant corruption, and leads people quite easily to their dooms. He is a satanic figure in the sense of being a tempter – and all his victims recognize, before their deaths, that this is what he has been, that they are being punished, justly, for their sins, and that Richard has merely been the instrument to effect their punishment.

And this is the note that sounds strongest in this production – and why I say it has almost the feel of a medieval morality play.

Which is ironic. Because before the play opened, what everyone was talking about was the star. Seana McKenna, one of Canada’s most accomplished stage actresses, was to play Richard. This would surely be interesting.

And it is. But not in the way one might expect. This production could have been an epic disaster a la the production in “The Goodbye Girl.” Or it could have been a fascinating meditation on gender and Richard’s alienation from his own body. Or it could have simply been a fantastic actress doing a star turn. But it isn’t any of these things. When McKenna first came on stage, I didn’t think – “hey, that’s a woman;” I thought, “wow, Richard is really short.” She’s not playing Richard as a woman, and she isn’t playing “masculine” – she’s playing Richard, and this Richard is an observant, proud, confident schemer, fully aware of the power of his own mind and fully convinced that he is beyond scruple. And we wind up focusing not on him, but on him as he relates to the other characters in the play. McKenna’s Richard is weakest in soliloquy (particularly Richard’s one moment of vulnerability, when he wakes from the nightmare visitation by the ghosts of his victims) and extraordinarily strong every time he sees an opening to slip the knife in – the moment he knows he has Anne hooked, and offers her his dagger to slay him if she cannot love him; the perfectly timed revelation of Clarence’s death that puts an end to unhappy Edward; that happy moment of recognition with Buckingham; the creepy caress of Tyrrel’s face.

Ironically, this star-vehicle of a play, which one might have expected to become even more star-focused than usual because of the unusual casting, is actually more of an ensemble piece than many productions, because the emphasis is so much on how every other character is affected by Richard rather than on the personality of Richard himself.

And so, let me say a few words about those other characters. The overwhelming standouts in the production were the women who actually got to play women – Yanna McIntosh as a forceful and moving Queen Elizabeth, Roberta Maxwell as a bitter Dutchess of York, and Martha Henry as an absolutely terrifying Queen Margaret, not merely a prophetess but a kind of vengeful ghost (and attired as such – it looked to me like the ghosts of the various victims of Richard were dressed to remind us of Margaret’s linen robe). But the men had their own moments – Sean Arbuckle made a meal of the small role of Catesby, playing him as a grinning psychopath with an exceptionally silly hairdo (a theme of Arbuckle’s roles this year); Oliver Becker was equally vicious, more in the thuggish mode, as Ratcliffe, the Rat to Arbuckle’s Cat; and Shane Carty as always does a marvelous job playing the fool, in this case as the Lord Mayor and as the second murderer of Clarence.

The production design, criticized by some for being boring, struck me as admirably clear, using a simple color palate to differentiate between the warring factions, and emphasized, again, the medieval setting, the simplicity of the costumes (no rich finery, not even for the royals) again playing up the sense that this is a morality play rather than a history.

I’ll conclude with one moment when McKenna broke out of the mold of the performance as a whole, to very positive effect. Late in the battle, Richard, his horse slain out from under him, is asked by Catesby to withdraw. He replies:

Slave, I have set my life upon a cast,
And will stand the hazard of the die:

This is a Richard we have not seen before – a “die all, die merrily” moment that, suddenly, and for the first time, brings us on his side. It’s a foreshadowing of the greater, somewhat similar moment Macbeth has close to his death, and has a similar quality of breaking out, achieving a freedom that the character had been unable to achieve before. In this case, Richard is finally not scheming, but betting all on his body – without even a horse to help him – to win the day.

And I thought, watching him: for all his faults, that’s a man.

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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