Folger Theatre is extremely excited about its upcoming production of Richard III. And the play’s director, Robert Richmond, seems to be the most excited of all. “It’s one of the most exciting things I’ve ever staged,” he told me. “It will be one of the most exciting experiences in DC this year.”
Folger’s Elizabethan theatre has always been a space that has confounded directors and designers. A replica of The Globe, the theatre built in 1599 at which Shakespeare premiered many of his plays, it has a pair of pillars which create sightline problems and which need, somehow, to be incorporated into every set. But Richmond had a radical idea, which involved putting seating on the raised stage and transforming the room into a de facto theatre in the round.
I talked with Richmond about this configuration, unprecedented at the Folger, but first we talked about the play and the character that provides the occasion for the experiment.
Richard III is arguably the most popular and most often performed of Shakespeare’s histories. The play is packing them in on Broadway right now, in a production by the Globe Theatre from London, featuring its former Artistic Director Mark Rylance in the title role. A couple of seasons back, Kevin Spacey took his take on the part to Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of a world tour that also proved wildly popular. It’s been filmed with Laurence Olivier and with Ian McKellan. In fact, so popular is the play that the Folger production will be running concurrently with another local production, at NextStop Theatre Company in Herndon, VA. Meanwhile, the new, wildly popular British mini-series The White Queen offers a take on the character which is a bit different from that in Shakespeare’s play.
Making the subject of the play even more distinct from other leading roles in history plays, such as Henry V or Richard II, the historical figure Richard III has been making headlines recently. “The discovery of the remains in August, September brought the world’s attention back to the last Plantagenet king,” Richmond said. “I’ve always been attracted to the play,” he continued and told me that he knew that, “for sure,” he would direct it one day. “But that particular coincidence made me think harder about it,” in particular about what any “new evidence would bring to an interpretation of the play. That’s where we started.”
“Shakespeare was clearly relying on his sources and was very influenced by those,” Richmond continued. “He was writing for the Tudors.” Richard, you will remember, was challenged and defeated by the Earl of Richmond (presumably no relation!), who then united the factions vying for the English throne during the War of the Roses and became the first Tudor king. His granddaughter Elizabeth I was on the throne when Shakespeare wrote the play, and she had an interest in historical accounts that would consider her succession as legitimate. Consequently, “there is a lot of fact but an awful lot of fiction inside of that play.”
Richmond emphasized that it was also “new history” that had emerged in the 60 to 80 years before the play was written. He compared this to a contemporary look at our recent history, saying it would have been about events that the audience would “know intimately because many are of the same generation” as participants in the events.
Moving on from the historical, Richmond discussed his interest in the “psychological side of Richard, what was his overarching idea. We’ve forgotten that he was a human being living in a complex and dangerous medieval world.” Richmond asked himself “what he might have been, what his justifications might have been, if you look more closely.”
We know that Richard “fought extremely well in battles when things were going well for his family, that he defended the North very well.” We’ve learned that his physical ailments were progressive, they “actually got increasingly worse throughout his life.” Looking skeptically at the deformed humpback described in Shakespeare, Richmond allowed as how it seems “definitely that his spine and shoulder were misaligned, but whether he had a hump or a paralyzed arm [the sorts of deformities that figure prominently in the Olivier and McKellan films as well as in scores of stage interpretations] is under debate.” Richmond focused on what Richard might have “seen in the mirror,” what would have been his “idea of self. We have a large idea of what the rest of the characters say about him, but what does he think?”
Richmond pointed out that looking at the character from a “modern perspective,” there are contemporary people who have made “disadvantages advantages” and who “draw courage” from them. “What we are trying to create is a world in which he wants to be an able-bodied person and is striving to achieve that.” Using, among other examples, the Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorius, whose story of triumph over adversity has been clouded by an accusation of murder, he continued, “All of those things ring bells and bring a more modern perspective.”
Richard III is one of the longer Shakespeare plays, and an uncut version (such as McKellan did at the Kennedy Center in 1992, before he made his film) can go longer than four hours. “I haven’t cut a lot. What I have tried to do is to sometimes tell the story with sequences, with visuals.” Determined to “keep the integrity of Shakespeare’s play and the beauty of the language, which is very much what the Folger and I are about,” he’s “found ways the story can happen visually,” how things that occur off stage can be shared with the audience “instead of just reported.” As an example, he mentioned murders that occur off stage, saying that he will “put them on stage so you can see them happen.” When I asked if those include the notorious murder of the young princes, he balked at answering and said, “I don’t want to give that one away.” At any rate, though “always hard at this stage to say,” his goal will be a run time of about two and a half hours.
I saw the Mark Rylance production in November, and I asked if Richmond had seen it. “I didn’t see it deliberately, I’m too close, I wanted to stay away.” However, he’s gotten enough reports about it that “I feel like I’ve seen it.” I mentioned that that production had cut the plum part of Mad Queen Margaret. “As do all the movies,” he replied, describing the choice as an “interesting decision, but not one that we’ve done at all.” As justification for keeping Margaret, he pointed out that “her curse goes round throughout the play, [her curses] become wish fulfillment from Margaret’s point of view, and from ours.” The world of the play is “full of superstition. Curses are actually palpable things. If you truly believe in them, they become currency and that’s very much the experience of the characters in this play.”
Returning to the overhaul of the playing space, Richmond said, “It was really quite a project. The discovery of the bones made me think about how to adapt not necessarily the play to the stage, but the stage to the play.” Even before the change, he said, the Folger provides a “very intimate experience, but by going this route, we define a 360 degree experience of the play. The audience becomes complicit in every decision that Richard makes. You can’t feel like you are in another room from what’s going on, you’re there all the time, the whole time.”
“I have to really thank everyone at the Folger for taking up this really crazy idea and making it work,” Richmond said, noting that the design team and the staff were “whole-heartedly” behind the idea. It fell to Set Designer Tony Cisek to “really figure out how the center of the room can serve the play.” Again referring to how the historical Richard was “inappropriately buried in a parking lot,” Richmond spoke of how, in his production, characters will, similarly, be murdered and “put in graves under the stage. There’s a whole world going on beneath the deck. It opens up all sorts of possibilities.”
Those who know the Folger know that the stage is raised. Cisek, Richmond, and company have leveled the room from the stage across the whole space. Pointing out the collateral advantages to the change, Richmond mentioned that, “All those side seats are now prime seats right there right next to the actors.” It renders the balcony seats more attractive. “The relationship of the balcony to the stage is much closer.” The change has decreased overall seating capacity “in a small way,” but has “increased the amount of great seats. More people are closer to the play.”
Staging in the round has “made us think about how one keeps things moving,” Richmond continued. “It can’t be static,” important action “can’t be blocked. It’s like a clock face, where the spinning dials are constantly changing the perspective of the room.”
Returning to the subject of his appreciation of the Folger’s institutional support for his “notion,” which he “naively” thought just might be possible, Richmond admitted that it’s “not just a case of moving seats.” The staging concept has implications for marketing, sales, safety. “People here have really championed this as a project. I’m really grateful.” Obviously relishing that the project is “challenging on a daily basis,” he said they are “still figuring things out” and making discoveries.
Richmond is from Hastings, on the southeast coast of England. He’s been stateside for 20 years and teaches at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. There’s an arena space there, so he has had experience directing students in the round. In fact, before he came up to the Folger, he workshopped Richard III down there with 26 undergraduate women. This enabled him to formulate his ideas before coming here, to “start at the shallow end and move slowly, carefully up the pool.”
Richmond’s cast includes 14 adults plus two children as the unfortunate Princes. (They are “actual brothers,” he boasted.) His Richard is Drew Cortese, seen last year at Studio Theatre in The Motherfucker with the Hat. Richmond said five or six of the cast are from out-of-town, though the cast features actors with deep DC roots, including Naomi Jacobson as Margaret, Nanna Ingvarsson as Richard’s mother, the Duchess of York, and Paul Morella as King Edward IV. Howard W. Overshown, who was based in DC during the 90s before moving to New York and, among other impressive gigs, appearing in the Spacey Richard III at BAM, plays Richard’s right-hand man, the Duke of Buckingham.
The curious should book their tickets now. Richard III runs through March 9, after which the Folger stage will return to status quo ante and the opportunity to experience the transformation of the space will have passed. The production and its unusual staging will have become one of those “you had to be there” memories…
Folger Theatre’s production of Richard III is in previews now. Official opening is February 1, 2014. Details and tickets.