Shakespeare’s Richard III – pared down to brutal basics

I love the exercise of finding similarities and contrasts in two different productions that I see in rapid succession, whether something like Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead performed in repertory, or two movies or plays just coincidentally easy to see together.  But yesterday’s theatregoing adventures exploring the nature and powers of royalty were so different that I’m still kind of disoriented today.

See, yesterday I followed up a viewing of the Red Deer College musical adaptation of Alice Through the Looking Glass with a University of Alberta student production of Shakespeare’s Richard III, directed and adapted by Lucy Collingwood.

This may have been a mistake.  But both shows opened this weekend for short runs (Richard III had just two more performances this afternoon and tonight).  My schedule got compressed by being snowed in Thursday night, and it hadn’t occurred to me to use the snowed-in time to research Richard III at all, either the Shakespeare version or the historical canon.  I arrived at the FAB Media Room for Richard III still catching my breath from the drive, and entered a dark space with a set piece looming high in one corner of the room, smoke swirling high around the harsh lighting, and two sets of risers arranged at sharp angles bounding a long pointed flat space in front of the steep staircases.

I was confused at the start and had trouble figuring out who was who in the story.  Richard, played by Matthew Kloster, stood out immediately, of course, with an awkward gait and twisted shoulder.  The casting in the program listed one role for each actor “and others”.  The roles were mostly listed as the noble title only, without given names or modifiers such as “brother to Queen Margaret”, and since English nobility seemed to have a very limited pool of given names, there seemed to be several Edwards, Henrys, etc in the story.  At intermission I discovered a short historical note on the display board, but I was still wishing for more of a lineage chart to help me keep the characters straight.

The narrative arc I’m familiar with in tragedies such as the Scottish play has someone committing a first murder for a specific purpose, and then getting swept along a path of committing more crimes in order to protect the gains acquired by the first crime, with the character gradually losing his or her conscience along the way.  But Shakespeare’s Richard III was not portrayed like that.  He seemed to be villainous from the start, and if he didn’t have the whole thing planned out before he started, he sure thought quickly and didn’t seem to have any second thoughts.  And a lot of his plans worked … until they didn’t.  The night before his death in battle, his dreams tormented him with the spectres of various people he’d killed, and while this makes sense as a conventional plot element presaging his doom, it’s actually a little surprising for someone who didn’t seem to have any guilt at all before that.  I found Matthew Kloster’s Richard so frightening that during the character’s periodic addresses to the audience I noticed myself stilling, shrinking into my seat, and looking away so that I wouldn’t catch his eye.  Other particularly strong portrayals included Queen Margaret (Alyson Dicey, last seen in Chris Craddock’s Velveteen Rabbit), widow of King Henry VI of Lancaster, with her curses, and Richard’s brother the Duke of Clarence (Colin Matty, improviser and spoken-word poet).

An ensemble of ten played too many characters to count.  One effective choice in making this work was to have all the actors both male and female play various male roles such as soldiers, lords, and assassins.  After the first disorienting few minutes, I was never confused as to the gender of a character because the female actors’ body language and voices always shifted to signal that their characters were male.  By the climactic battle scene near the end, when Richard’s and Richmond’s (Jimmy Hodges’) supporters were fighting with staves and in hand-to-hand combat, I’d almost stopped noticing that almost all the strong acrobatic fighters I was watching were female.

The designers for this production (Cheyenne Sykes for costumes, Alison Yanota for lighting, Josee Chartrand for set design), chose an almost colourless palette, with consistently harsh blue-tinged smoky light.  Richard dressed in white, but all the other characters were clothed in grey and two specific tones of taupe and mauve, usually barefoot.  Assassins wore black gloves, widows wore veils, soldiers wore polished boots and hair pulled back, but otherwise the costumes seemed plain, unremarkable and uniform, with identical hairstyles and similar black-ringed eyes.

Richard’s power was occasionally demonstrated symbolically in this production by having him make gestures characteristic of the way hypnotism or mind control are commonly represented, with the other characters respond silently as mesmerised or compelled.  As this was not so different than the results of his usual demeanour, it served to underline his control of the situations.  One specific such scene had me recalling a mirror-image representation in the production of Alice Through the Looking Glass I’d seen earlier that day.  In Through the Looking Glass, when Alice crosses the brook to the eighth square and is transformed from pawn to queen in the chess game, this is represented by the White King plucking a golden crown out of the air while he stands behind her and setting it on her head.  In Richard III, Richard has been talking to his brother, King Edward IV (Jimmy Hodges), who seems to be dying, and his wife Queen Elizabeth (Elissa Weinzimmer), when he freezes them all with a gesture, removes the circlet of rank from Elizabeth’s head, and replaces it gently with a black veil, before gesturing them all off stage.  It isn’t clear to me whether he’s hastened his brother’s death or not, but the symbolic actions demonstrate that it’s all part of his twisted plan.

It was a long intense show.  Richard’s death at the end comes as a relief, and we’re left with some hope that those left alive might begin to rebuild a more sane humane kingdom under Richmond.  I also left with the resolution to read at least a synopsis beforehand the next time I go to watch a Shakespeare history play.

One thought on “Shakespeare’s Richard III – pared down to brutal basics

  1. Pingback: Bitches and Money 1878 | Ephemeral Pleasures

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