Tuesday, February 26, 2019

A gruesome Richard III

You do not need to accept the veracity of Shakespeare's depiction of the English monarch Richard III to savor the play. It is one of Shakespeare's early works, when he was focusing on history and when he was most cognizant of his need not to offend the last Tudor, Elizabeth I. After all, Richmond, who wins the day at the Battle of Bosworth Field and ends the play by dispatching Richard, became the first Tudor king, Henry VII.

Indeed, the great work that seeks to clear Richard's name, Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time, points to none other than Henry VII as the real villain who was responsible for the murder of the two princes in the Tower of London, Edward V and Richard, Duke of York. Another major figure who helped establish Richard's vile reputation was Laurence Olivier, whose portrayal of Richard as a hunchbacked, snarling monster in the 1950s-era movie he produced contributed to confirming the evil image of the leading role.

Nevertheless, Olivier and many other wonderful actors have performed wonders in conveying the essence of a Shakespearean villain who gives Iago and Macbeth a run for their wickedness. Jose Ferrer led a marvelous cast on Broadway way back when and a few years ago, Stacy Keach shone in the part at the Shakespeare Theatre here in Washington.

The current production there, however, which we saw last Saturday night, goes off in the wrong direction. Matthew Rauch plays Richard and his performance is fine. But the director, David Muse, engaged by departing managing director Michael Kahn in his last season, has chosen to focus mostly on presenting gory death scenes to emphasize the lengthy chain of murders Richard directs. The  scenes seem to draw on both hospital-like execution settings and the atmosphere of a totalitarian state.

There's more blood that you see in even Jacobean tragedies such as Middleton and Rowley's The Changeling. That's not necessarily terrible but here it does not contribute to the impact of the play, and in fact, likely overshadows some of the more engaging sections that Shakespeare wrote which have been edited out to extend these death scenes. The play's length does support selective cuts, but I would take issue with the ones made here.

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