There remains to this day a good bit of controversy regarding the character of Richard III, the historical figure. The Tudors who laid claim to the throne of England when Richard was killed apparently took it upon themselves to cast the darkest of aspersions over his memory.
But was he the dark quintessence of bloodthirsty excess he has come to be known primarily through this play? We know, for instance, that he established a “Court of Requests” where poor people unable to afford legal representation could have grievances heard. He introduced bail in 1484 to keep suspected felons from losing their property while on trial, banned restrictions on the printing and sale of books and ordered laws and statutes to be translated from their traditional French into English.
William Camden, a British historian of the 16th century, wrote of Richard that “…albeit he lived wickedly, he made good laws” and Francis Bacon pronounced him “…a good lawmaker for the comfort and solace of the common people.” On the other hand, he was characterized by others (among them Thomas More) as having outward physical deformities which mirrored his inwardly tormented state of mind. No one disagrees that Shakespeare added substantially to whatever physical abnormalities Richard possessed as well as turning him into an unrepentant Machiavellian villain.
Perhaps less well noted but of equal interest is the theme of fatalism versus free will that finally comes to haunt Richard, who through the vast majority of the play acts as though his will was the only one that counts. As he faces the death that is becoming more and more certain as his fate, it dawns on him in no uncertain terms: “Fool, of thyself speak well: fool, do not flatter. My conscience hath a thousand several tongues, and every tongue brings in a several tale, and every tale condemns me for a villain.”
Whatever the real truth regarding Richard’s inner and outer life may be, Shakespeare’s play was and continues to be accorded tremendous popularity. That would have to do with his facility in drawing one of the most intriguing characters in all of theatre. Richard is a character with unique attributes which cannot be found almost anywhere else. This is a man whose wicked charm can turn hate into compassion at the drop of a hat – truly a silver tongued devil.
Vince Eisenson, a resident member of the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, nails Richard beginning with the famous opening lines, “Now is the winter of our discontent …” and carries him and the entire production through to the final bloody battle scene where he loses his horse and his life. Eisenson’s portrayal is a tribute to director Ian Gallanar’s casting acumen. A considerably younger Richard than we are accustomed to seeing, Eisenson has Richard constantly on the move, always prepared with a rapid riposte appropriate to whatever conceit is currently occupying his attention. But he is never, ever unclear or in any danger of being misunderstood. When Eisenson/Richard makes a point directly, he does so without hesitation and without remorse. I wouldn’t be surprised if the catch-phrase “in your face” originated with Richard. It is certainly a large and essential part of Eisenson’s interpretation.
This is a beguiling and fascinating malcontent who, I dare to presume, wins over the audience and, lest we catch ourselves, actually has us cheering him on – even to the point where Lord Buckingham persuades the move-along audience to applaud and cheer for Richard to take the proffered crown and kingdom even as Richard dissembles between two nuns putting on a most convincing act of humility and piousness. Traveling the distance to Ellicott City and finding your way through to the magnificent ruins at PFI Historic Park is worth every bit of the effort just to take in Eisenson’s performance.
His portrayal is so strong that it threatens to overwhelm almost everyone else. There is, however, one electric scene not involving Richard that deserves more than passing notice. Ron Heneghan as Clarence, the first victim of Richard’s great cunning, plays a scene while held in the tower prison that is absolutely chilling. He recounts a nightmare in such a compelling and vivid way that it is difficult not to feel as though one were experiencing the dream right along with him. The scene to follow, a brilliant bit of comic byplay with his executioners, is equally enthralling.
Given the ubiquitous nature of Richard’s presence, not many have the same opportunity as Heneghan to take the stage. Any time Eisenson is present, one is drawn to his magnetic presence almost unwillingly.
Nonetheless, the remainder of the cast acquit themselves well, most particularly Phil Hosford as Edward IV, Lizzi Albert as Lady Anne (perhaps the only one who really stands up to and holds her own – at least briefly — with Richard), Scott Alan Small as the hapless Buckingham and Jonas David Grey who makes for an appropriately malevolent Catesby.
Leslie Mallin, Managing Director for the CSC, takes the difficult role of Queen Elizabeth. It calls for wails of grief and lamentation on a number of occasions — magnified by a steely inner strength one catches a glimpse of in an early scene. In fairly rapid succession the Queen stands by as loved one after loved one is laid to waste by the ruthless ambition of Richard’s relentless pursuit of the crown.
Mallin just isn’t quite up to the challenge, and I wonder if Gallanar might have been better served by reaching outside his core of resident actors for someone who could better perform this relatively small but pivotal role.
Closes October 28, 2012
Chesapeake Shakespeare Company
at PFI Historic Park
3691 Sarah’s Lane
Ellicott City, MD 21043
2 hours, 45 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $29 – $36
Thursdays thru Sundays
And now a somewhat personal note to Mr. Gallanar, who has overseen CSC’s success and the integrity of this company in faithfully bringing Shakespeare to life for audiences over the past decade – no small feat to say the least. Too much of a good thing can be too much. The PFI site is entrancing and offers truly unique opportunities for staging theatre out of doors. However, it appears that you may have gotten carried away with the magic of it all. Attempting to move a sizeable audience up and down stairs, around balconies and through doorways where two individuals cannot pass shoulder to shoulder is asking too much. There were a number of times where a significant portion of the audience (including this reviewer) missed the first few minutes of a scene while attempting to scramble from one place to the next and then find a place that does not disrupt the ongoing scene.
What began as an annoyance became, in the course of a show that runs close to three hours, almost an obsession with getting to the next scene on time and scouting out an appropriate place to stand where one’s chances of making it to the next scene on time might be enhanced.
Richard III is, in many ways, a play about excess and envy. As audience members we are there to drink it in and be delighted with such a great adventure in live theatre. The excess and envy do not need to extend into the realm of staging and “troop movements.” This is a very fine production, one where every scene wants to be seen and enjoyed from start to finish. In the future, please do not deprive us of that opportunity.
For those planning to attend a performance, dress in layers and be prepared to be on the move and on your feet for long periods of time. In the end, it is well worthwhile.
RICHARD III By William Shakespeare, Directed by Ian Gallanar. Featuring Vince Eisensen, Phil Hosford, Ron Heneghan, Vince Eisenson, Addison Malin Helm, Jack Connors, Suzanne Knapik, Melanie Vitullo, Danielle Vitullo, Lizzi Albert, James Jager, Patrick Miller, Patrick Kilpatrick, Lesley Malin, Frank B. Moorman, Scott Farquhar, Dave Gamble, Scott Alan Small, Greg Burgess, Bart Debicki, Rebecca Dreyfuss, Jennifer J. Hopkins, Jared Mason Murray, Patrick Miller, Bart Debicki, Jonas David Grey and John Thomas Miller. Costume Design by Heather Jackson. Props Design by Pam Weiner. Assistant Director:Alicia Stanley. Dramaturg:Lesley Malin. Special Effects by Jonas David Grey. Fight Choreography by Patrick Kilpatrick, assisted by James Jager. Text coach: Teresa Castracane. Stage Management by Mindy Braden and Sandra Welty. Run Crew is Bobby Hennenberg. Produced by Chesapeake Shakespeare Company. Reviewed by Larry Bangs.
Editor’s note: Chesapeake Shakespeare informs us that, realizing the problem on opening night, they have combined some scenes into a single setting, which also reduced the running time by 10 minutes.