Shakespeare Theatre Production Lacks Insight Into Machiavellian Monster
How should an audience react to a grotesquely deformed character who says he is psychologically disturbed but instead of seeking therapy, intends to kill everyone in sight to gain power?
When Shakespeare is the author, the murderous ambition becomes acceptable, even typical. But the script of “Richard III,” although rendered exquisitely by the Shakespeare Theatre Company under the steady hand of Artistic Director Michael Kahn, doesn’t give the audience enough motivation behind Richard’s serial killing for it to seem believable.
It’s not that there are absolutely no reasons to care about Richard. It can be argued that his opening soliloquy (“Now is the winter of our discontent”) is one of the Bard’s most dramatic, notorious and moving passages. Here, Richard is heartbreakingly candid as he confides to the audience that he is “not made to court an amorous looking glass … is rudely stamp’d … deformed, unfinish’d, and cheated of feature by dissembling Nature.”
And it is widely known that in Shakespeare’s time, physical appearance was equated with the inner makeup of a person, which in Richard’s case, is quite disturbing. There is also the universal phenomenon of dual attraction and repulsion that gives us cause to care about this Machiavellian monster. But without deeper insight—into his childhood psychological trauma, perhaps—spectators could easily feel detached, and the ensuing three hours of continuous bloodshed might only appeal to those with an insatiable appetite for sensationalistic entertainment.
One argument in favor of this type of bloodshed is that Shakespeare never meant Richard to be a real person, but instead a warning about the nature of power. “‘Richard III’ is about how we must not mistake charm for virtue, wit for justice, laughter for right,” said Peter Byrne, a professor at Carroll College in Wisconsin.
In fact, Shakespeare’s “Richard III,” although considered one of his historical plays, is mostly made up, according to many historians. The Bard’s interpretation of the king resembles that of English statesman Thomas More, who created the figure of a brutal and deformed king. But the true Richard was not deformed, and although he was no saint, there is also no evidence that he was a killing machine as he’s been depicted, according to the Richard III Society, a group that claims the play is mere propaganda for the Tudors, who overtook Richard and ruled during Shakespeare’s time.
“Shakespeare makes Richard history’s loser, but he wasn’t like that in real life,” said George Washington University professor Jeffrey Cohen, who specializes in monsters of the medieval period.
Yet another hurdle is the play’s length—out of all of Shakespeare’s plays, only “Hamlet” is longer.
But despite the challenges, Kahn’s production—which incidentally is the company’s first offering in the citywide Shakespeare in Washington Festival—comes to life for its ingenuity.
Most striking is Lee Savage’s set: a prison-like metal complex built on a five-degree tilt to represent Richard’s skewed world. The characters, dressed in ragged, mangy furs, resemble barbaric, caged animals (see accompanying sidebar). Richard’s royal train, finally won after a multitude of successful murder plots, is farcical in its length, appearing to engulf the stage and threatening to trip anyone near it.
The two actors who shine among the play’s hordes of characters are Geraint Wyn Davies, who plays the title role, and Tana Hicken, as Queen Margaret. Wyn Davies’s Richard is diametrical to his comical portrayal two years ago of Cyrano de Bergerac, for which he won a Helen Hayes Award, but it is no less brilliant. With an imposing clubfoot, hunched shoulder and disfigured face, his forceful presence dominates the stage as he weaves among his enemies with deft speed.
The ghostly character of Margaret, whose late husband King Henry VI of the House of Lancaster lost the crown to the House of York, comes back to haunt and curse the greediness of the kingdom’s new powers. Hicken’s open, questioning face and direct manner of speech command attention and create foreboding.
Her presence also foreshadows the litany of corpses to be killed by Richard, who, as ghostlike figures, reappear in dreams the night before Richard loses his crown to Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond.
Although the plot’s rendering of evil, corruption and immorality will send chills up your spine, the script lacks empathy. Literally all of the characters are corrupt—the Lancasters and Tudors alike are motivated only by destructive greed.
Kahn must have realized the play’s shortcoming in his attempt to find vulnerability in the script. “Kahn’s approach was to find the humanity in it,” said Stephen Fried, assistant director of the production.
Ideally, the audience should care for Richard’s other qualities—his wit and intellect—and for his efforts to confide in them. The question, however, is whether that is enough. Wyn Davies, although he exudes deceptive charm like a master, lacks the human angst that naturally accompanies such immorality. This is especially apparent when, near the end of the play, Richard tells the audience that he is in too deep to turn back now. The hushed observation is quietly delivered by Wyn Davies almost as a throwaway line. Instead, it should strike the audience as the painful beginning of a downward spiral.
Consequently, when Richard is strung up by all four limbs in grotesque brutality, the audience is not ready for a cathartic ending. Instead, the mixed emotional reactions Shakespeare intended are replaced by relieved detachment.
Richard III through March 18 Shakespeare Theatre 450 7th St., NW Tickets are to .25. For more information, please call (202) 547-1122 or visit www.shakespearetheatre.org.
Richard’s Fur Flies
When Jennifer Moeller, the costume designer for “Richard III,” first met with Shakespeare Theatre Artistic Director Michael Kahn, “he had a clear idea that the people in this play were caged animals in some sense,” Moeller recalled. “My job was to figure out how to bring that to life.”
It started with research. The real Richard was born in 1452, and it was important to Moeller that the costumes, although “not slavishly historical,” be grounded in medieval realities.
But when she began sketching her ideas, creativity took them aloft. According to Moeller, her initial costume passion was the fur, and then “the silhouettes,” followed by the characters’ identities. For instance, if they were animals, what would they be? Perhaps Princess Anne was a bird and the prophetess Margaret a ratty palace dog. And Richard? A slithering snake.
Geraint Wyn Davies, who plays Richard, worked closely with Moeller to collaborate on his look, described by Moeller as reptilian in black leather. “He was very interested in the prosthetics,” Moeller said, citing his hump, shorter leg and birthmark. They decided to keep Richard’s deformities all to one side—his left—to suggest his Jekyll and Hyde persona. “Both feet are flat on the ground although his left shoe is built up. It was important to him that we didn’t inhibit his movement,” she explained.
Moeller called Wyn Davies “a gifted actor” who appreciated costume use in his art. “The idea to have Richard’s coronation robe long and coiling like a snake came from him,” she said. In fact, the robe is so heavy that it’s kept backstage and not in Wyn Davies’s dressing room.
Moeller’s lavish use of faux fur, based on designs of the time, was her own response to the “caged animals” theme. For example, the faux fox fur sewn into the seams of Queen Elizabeth’s spectacular coat was based on a modern design, in which Moeller matched the embossed velvet coat fabric to the gold of the fox, shopping for it herself in New York.
Margot Dionne as Queen Elizabeth had to accommodate movement in her heavy fabric and long train. “She had to walk in a little circle to turn around,” Moeller noted. And because the actors wore muslin versions during rehearsals, they didn’t rehearse in the full costumes themselves until shortly before the previews.
The costumes’ flowing movements are assisted in the women’s gowns through vertically gored seams and triangular pieces of fabric—a historically accurate costume design that allows fitted tops to flare into wide skirts. The men, meanwhile, have split tunics to allow movement in battle.
The leather battle armor and other costumes were actually crafted in the theater’s costume shop on Capitol Hill, and it was there that shirts worn by the beheaded cast members got drenched in painted blood. In addition, “metal” chain mail was knit out of cord and silver foil applied for glitter, while the suede was “distressed,” i.e. painted to give the appearance of age.
The Shakespeare Theatre has won eight Helen Hayes Awards for costume design since 1991, including one last year, and has been nominated for 21 others.
About the Author
Lisa Troshinsky is the theater reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.