Loaded with action and intrigue and bursting at the seams with an uncommonly large cast of characters, William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Richard III inspires controversy and discussion whenever and wherever it’s staged. And the Washington Shakespeare Company’s new production of the drama is no exception. Now playing at the theater troupe’s new digs—Arlington’s Artisphere (formerly the Newseum)—this Richard III takes the Bard’s glorious mess and renders it entirely incoherent.
Most avid Shakespeare fans are well aware of the academic and theatrical controversies that swirl—often deliciously—around this play. Is it a history play or a tragedy? Should a production use all of the characters and all of the scenes, or some of the characters and some of the characters and some of the scenes? One’s personal list of imponderables can go on ad infinitum.
The general consensus today is that Richard III is revisionist history meant not only to entertain but, at least indirectly, to curry favor with then then-current Tudor line of English rulers—who’d obtained the throne by whacking Richard. But however you interpret it, the historical machinations leading up to Richard’s overthrow and death were Byzantine in the extreme.
Shakespeare’s play quite deftly navigates these plots, intrigues, and grudge matches as long as audience members are students of history and understand the myriad subtexts and passing references. Unfortunately, as modern audiences become less and less connected with Western history and its major and minor players, various plot elements can become a bit confusing. One contemporary solution to this dilemma is to trim things down, drop some of the scenes and minor characters, and focus on the Shakespearean Richard’s losing battle against his era’s inconvenient truths.
The Washington Shakespeare Company’s solution, under the direction of Christopher Henley and Jay Hardee, embraces this notion, scissoring out a scene here, putting a few characters into the blender there, in order to improve clarity and focus while shortening the play’s running time.
Unfortunately, the directors didn’t stop there. Ironically, they add the confusion back in by swapping genders in this role and that; costuming characters in a hodge-podge of outfits ranging from basic goth to ‘60s-era Carnaby Street to Lindsay Lohan; and adding in, particularly at the production’s outset, an obnoxious techno-beat background that drowns out the key opening dialogues while turning the organs of the inner ear to dust.
The result: a mind-boggling mess of a production that will almost certainly irritate Shakespeare purists and leading-edge aficionados alike.
First off, what is it with gender-bending these days? The approach proved awkward and foolish in Scena’s August 2010 production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, transforming this wittiest of drawing room comedies into an often uncomfortable, self-conscious drag show. So why would another flavor of it work in Richard III? As we’ve already mentioned, the play’s rapidly rotating cast of characters, living and dead, is confusing enough. What is the point of confusing things further by swapping genders and pronoun references? Methinks the avant-garde is getting a little long of tooth these days.
The absurdity of this approach was unintentionally highlighted during Monday evening’s performance when the actress who was to perform in the key male role of Buckingham was suddenly indisposed. This forced one of the directors, Jay Hardee, to bravely stand in for her on short notice with playbook in hand. Hardee actually did a fine job. But what you had here in essence was a male character, cast and re-written as a female but then, by a quirk of theatrical fate, portrayed once again by a man.
This kind of extreme tampering doesn’t necessarily lead to an earth-shattering re-imagination of a dusty old theatrical or operatic war horse, as we witnessed in this summer’s brutal, disastrous Wolf Trap Opera Company production of Mozart’s seldom-scene Zaide. Rather, such productions ultimately seek to draw attention away from a musical or dramatic classic and focus it instead on the director, often with uncertain results.
True, even in this Washington Shakespeare production’s chaotic fog, there are flashes of inspiration. The idea of having the ghosts of Richard’s many victims return as zombies fresh out of “Night of the Living Dead” was viscerally contemporary and brilliant. Ditto the red-clad characters of Tyrrel (blended with Murderer #1) and Murderer #2 (Carolyn Myers and Anne Nottage) pouncing on their victims like vampires signaled the right kind of symbolism for this style of production.
In addition, the acting in the lead roles was generally first class. Special kudos to Frank Britton in the huge, overpowering role of Richard. Twisting through a kaleidescope of emotions and passions in every scene, Britton’s cold, leering, ambitious, and ultimately tragic usurper might have given Machiavelli himself pause for further reflection.
The women who actually played women were also quite effective, including Karen Novack (Elizabeth), Mundy Spears (Anne), Charlotte Akin (Margaret), and the Duchess of York (Lynn Sharp Spears).
But on the whole, this is a production that’s hard to follow and at times, due to the techno-track hard to listen to, which betrays the energetic and enthusiastic efforts of Richard III’s large cast. It’s an example—all too common these days—of an “edgy” new interpretation of an old play that jumps the shark instead of unveiling exciting new vistas of imagination and understanding.
Younger non-traditionalists may very well favor this production. It ain’t your father’s Shakespeare, that’s for sure. But traditionalists and those who prefer to look beyond the surface glitz of a given production may want to give this Richard III a pass.
Directed by Christopher Henley and Jay Hardee
Produced by The Washington Shakespeare Company
Reviewed by Terry Ponick