Richard III shouldn’t work very well. It looks like a quest narrative, but nothing of substance stands between the anti-hero and his goal, so it’s more like a project narrative. Not much dramatic tension there. It’s true that several people must be stabbed, or smothered, or beheaded, before Richard gets to sit on England’s throne, and an ordinary villain might generate some energy by making us wonder how he plans to neutralize those people without tainting himself, but there’s no wondering in this case: Richard’s going to send his henchmen to dispatch those men and boys, a dozen of them, without a second thought about who knows.
That’s clear from the opening scene, so where’s the problem?
Director Robert Richmond’s new production of Richard III, which opened last weekend at The Folger Theatre, solves the no-problem problem by moving the problem out of the characters’ playbook into the moral aegis of the audience. The question isn’t how Richard will get to the throne, but rather how people like us handle people like him.
The answer seems to be that we bury them in parking lots. The factual answer, anyway.
Richmond writes in the playbill that in August of 2012, excavators doing site work for a parking lot in Leicester, England unearthed a skeleton which proved to be that of Richard III, the man who was the model for the villain in this play. DNA from an 18th-generation descendant matched DNA from those apparently excoriated bones, and Richmond took that discovery as a call to “re-examine the intersection between fact and fiction, myth and historical record.”
This production does that in a couple of ways. First it puts a parking lot into the middle of the Folger, and it puts the audience in the space the actors usually occupy. The action takes place on a black slab with gray lines painted on it in familiar patterns — a basketball court? — with something like a roseate window in the center and several trap doors that open like the lids of graves. Bodies go in, and ghosts come out. Richard and his cronies carry the hooks that open the lids.
There are a couple of rows of seats to the left and the right of the slab, and three or four rows in the back of the house, but most of the seats are on risers in what’s usually the playing space. It’s cramped. Sometimes Richard joins us on the risers, leaning on his elbow, watching scenes in which he doesn’t have a line. Even when he isn’t there, he’s there.
The fictional answer to that question — how do people like us handle people like him — isn’t so clear. Are there many of his kind for us to bury, one might wonder? Yes, this production would say. Maybe not many who offer strawberries to the severed heads of enemies who used to be their friends, as Richard does, but quite a few who loathe themselves and treat the rest of us accordingly.
Shakespeare gave Richard reason to despise himself. He’s “rudely stamped …, cheated of feature by dissembling nature, deformed, unfinished, sent before [his] time into this breathing world scarce half made up.” A premie who came out of his mother before the finish carpentry was done, “and that so lamely and unfashionable,” he comments, “that dogs bark at me as I halt by them.” No chance of making varsity, in other words, or getting girls. It makes sense that he might be bitter.
But Robert Richmond unmakes that sense by casting Drew Cortese, who is buff and handsome and melifluous and bitchingly arrayed in clothes I wish I had the verve to wear, as Richard. He has no more reason to despise himself than you or I. His self-loathing is primordial, in other words, not particular: he hates things about himself that no one else can see. The world is full of guys like him.
Closes March 9, 2014
201 East Capitol Street, SE
2 hours, 30 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $30 – $72
Tuesdays thru Sundays
If he were a lump of foul deformity, we would be disgusted by his request that lovely Queen Elizabeth (Julia Motyka) deliver a kiss from him to her daughter, who he hopes will consolidate his power by consenting to become his second wife. But because he’s the sexiest man in the house, and because beautiful Elizabeth has shocked us all by stripping down to her black leather bustier in the middle of their argument, apparently too hot to stay completely dressed while she pounds his chest and almost knocks him over, the kiss which she initiates —inflicts as if it were a form of retribution — makes us seethe, and ponder ways to handle guys like that.
Osherow notes that the real Richard’s bones had been nicked and scraped by wounds inflicted to humiliate him. He was buried with his wrists tied, in a hole that wasn’t big enough, probably by men who recognized a little of themselves in him, the part that no one else can see, except in this production, at the intersection between myth and fact.
Richard III by William Shakespeare . Directed by Robert Richmond . Featuring Jenna Berk, Holden Brettell, Drew Cortese, Andrew Criss, Daniel Flint, Sean Fri, Michael Gabriel Goodfriend, Nanna Ingvarsson, Naomi Jacobson, Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan, Paul Morella, Julia Motyka, Howard W. Overshown, Michael Sharon, and Richard Sheridan Willis . Set design by Tony Cisek . Costume design: Mariah Hale . Lighting design: Jim Hunter . Composer and sound design: Eric Shimelonis . Fight director: Casey Kaleba . Produced by Folger Theatre . Reviewed by Mark Dewey.