I asked three actors, all playing female royalty in Richard the Third at Shakespeare Theatre Company, to talk about what might convince wavering potential audiences to see this production.
Sandra Shipley plays The Duchess of York, mother of Richard III:I’d like to say, right off the top, that, because of the way the play has been edited and cut, and because of the actors that have been given the roles, it’s an incredibly clear Shakespeare. There are supertitles that go across the balcony on-stage: ‘This is this person, who is the father of, or the mother of, or the brother of…’ So just from the point of view of knowing who is who, and the history, it makes it very clear. A lot of people don’t want to come to Shakespeare because it’s involved, and they don’t know who the characters are. ‘It’s going to be long and boring.’ It’s not. It moves fast. The scenes are very, very interesting and quite clear. It’s a great, quick, clean Shakespeare that’s very engaging.
Lizan Mitchell plays Margaret of Anjou: I go along one hundred percent with what Sandra just said. It’s timely. It’s very dynamic. The first time we did it for an audience, we said, ‘Wait a minute. It’s almost over?’ The percussive energy is amazing.
Robynn Rodriguez plays Queen Elizabeth: You know, the play has resonance for a reason. These things aren’t so far removed from us. As human beings, we don’t really learn our lessons of history very well, and doing this play right now, in this town, moves me deeply. It just does.
Shipley: And in recent history, looking back on the rise of power so blatantly malignant, that should have been stopped — how did that happen?
Mitchell: Over and over again.
Shipley: You see this on-stage and you go, ‘Oh yeah. People don’t want to speak up.’
Are some traditionally male roles played by women in this production?
Shipley: Yes. Richmond is a woman. Having Margaret in the play, who was a warrior Queen — she’s already been to battle. And so, having a woman lead an army at Bosworth, then, is not unusual, because we have already established that there’s been a very successful warrior Queen, who’s actually lost her place as Queen. But she was there, so there is that component to it.
Rodriguez: Well, I’m thinking, too, contextually, in terms of this production that, with the exception of Margaret, everybody else has to navigate this very not-so-secure world that’s dominated by some very powerful men, and these women have to work to navigate their own safety; certainly the safety of their families. And so, what I find interesting is that the leader of the rebellion — the leader of the new world order — is not Richmond as a traditional male; it is Richmond as a woman. Listening to Evelyn [Spahr] speak the words of the character of Richmond, there’s a resonance to the text for me. And it’s not a woman playing a male; it’s a woman playing the role as a woman. That was the director’s choice. (I don’t know that he’d say that the power of the feminine prevails, but that’s what I’m left with.)
Mitchell: I think when you see the play, it’s not an exact replica of the Richard the Third that most people are familiar with. You see changes throughout that make this make sense. Also, there’s a history of powerful queens during that time from very, very different locations — Thailand, Africa, Sweden — that have been unacknowledged by history, so I feel that, although this is not according to the text of Shakespeare as traditionally cast, it’s not out of order in terms of what can happen, or what was happening at that time.
What about this play speaks to 2019?
Rodriguez: The evils of complicity: if something’s wrong, and you enable it, there’s blood on your hands. You are as guilty for the chaos and hideous tragedy as the evil leader, who seems to have all the power.
Shipley: And that it gets more difficult to speak out the longer you wait, because more people are drawn into a web of lies and deceit. If you don’t speak out when you first know in your gut that something is wrong, it gets more and more difficult to be able to say ‘No. I don’t want to be part of it.’
Mitchell: And also, even though we may have been complicit by enablement, there’s always the opportunity to stand up. I don’t think it’s ever too late to stand up.
Shipley: Better late than never, right?
I asked them to talk about gender as it relates to the play.
Shipley: Apart from Margaret, who is there as a warrior, the women in our play are still very much behind the scenes. It’s in a time, Shakespeare’s time in England, where all your property, whatever you inherited, would be your husband’s property. You didn’t have rights. You didn’t have any standing apart from what you could manipulate. There was a lot of rivalry between factions, and between women, because their children and themselves will be safer if they were allied to a powerful man and that, thank goodness, is changed, or changing.
Rodriguez: A documentary that I saw several years ago, called She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, took the second wave of feminism and, for me, for the first time in my life, put it into a historical context that I hadn’t really thought about before, in terms of what was going on on many, many levels, not only in this country, but globally. Our ability to be in control of our destiny is a constant battle. I do feel that the problems that these women have in a play like Richard III have resonance because those problems still exist.
Shipley: Ludicrous as that seems, all this time later.
Rodriguez: Does it speak to me? Sure. Absolutely. Can I find something in my character that is something that I feel like I’m witnessing when I read the news? You bet.
Mitchell: I think I come from a different point of view about the whole thing because I don’t think the issues of women of color were addressed in a meaningful kind of way, and I think that we have had to fight differently from the start, because of our position in life. During the time of enslavement, there was not a lot of differentiation according to gender about what you were going to do, you know? And so women had to assume very masculine kinds of responsibilities, period. I mean, you didn’t have a voice about that, so the whole thought pattern about feminism will vary. I think that the expansion to include everyone, and the power that is received from that, is evidence to me that the pendulum has already begun to swing, and there is no going back.
Rodriguez: I’m so glad you said that.
I asked them to talk about their characters and the historical time in which the play is set.
Mitchell: Margaret comes from a background of extremely strong women who had to take control because their husbands were compromised in one way or another, and so they had to be strong administrators of countries. I was talking to Robynn about Margaret’s grandmother, who was Yolande of Aragon. She was the one who convinced Charles, who was the King of France at the time, to support Joan of Arc. Margaret’s father was incarcerated because of a family feud; her mother took over. And, in the Hundred Years War between France and England, she [Margaret] made the commitment to marry Henry [VI] in exchange for getting lands back. She’s fortified from childhood with a sense of mission and purpose.
Shipley: And looking at my background as the Duchess of York, who called herself ‘Queen by right,’ although she was never actually a Queen: so much manipulation behind the scenes; switching allegiances from one son to another son — which we don’t actually have in Shakespeare’s play — but a lot of Machiavellian moves, trying to work out where your best shot at a good life was; very strange machinations, in the background, because you had no power in and of yourself; only how you could align things that would work out to be beneficial. It must have been a very exhausting life, and a scary one, because you would never be secure.
Richard the Third
closes March 10, 2019
Details and tickets
Rodriguez: Elizabeth Woodville was a commoner. Her mother was a Duchess, married initially to one of Henry V’s brothers, but he died and she married a commoner. There was money, initially, but because of the Hundred Years War, the fortunes of the family were depleted. Elizabeth Woodville married a man by the last name of Gray, they had sons, he went to war and died in the War of the Roses. (He was fighting for the side of Henry VI and Margaret.) And she went to the now-King Edward IV, Richard III’s older brother, because her lands had been confiscated, and she wanted the lands back for her sons, and so he said, ‘Yeah, you can have your lands back if you become my mistress.’ She said, ‘Nope. Sorry.’ And so he married her: made a commoner Queen of England. Did not sit well with anybody.
Shipley: Because his mother was arranging a marriage with a Princess of France.
Rodriguez: As was Lady Anne’s father, ‘the Kingmaker,’ The Duke of Warwick. So it was an untenable situation, and then, as Edward IV succumbs (to probably syphilis), she and he have had more children. And what does she have? She’s got this son who is rightfully the next King of England, but he’s a boy: mother of the Princes of the Tower. We know something untoward happened to those children; we know that Richard III became the king. But she survived. She allied herself behind the scenes with Richmond, made sure her daughter married Richmond, and what does she end up being? The great-grandmother to Henry VIII and the great-great grandmother of Elizabeth I, so, yah, yah Elizabeth!
Rodriguez: Yeah. But how she did it — you’d have to engage your brain, because anything could have happened at any time.
Shipley: It must have been a very strange world, with no communication. You didn’t know what was happening in different parts of your own world, let alone the wider world. Life would have been hard in our circle. Even people with a relatively powerful position and wealth, life would not have been that easy. Margaret ends up being banished and living by whatever means she can find. Films cut her out: Ian McKellan’s film and Olivier’s film. How do you do that? It’s such a counterpoint to Richard and his world. I can’t understand why they’d do it, unless — I’m sorry to say it, but maybe it’s an actor in the role that doesn’t want to have that counterpoint there that is so powerful.
Uncut, the play can run four hours plus; this production is two hours and forty minutes.
Shipley: We love our cut. It’s so streamlined and it makes it so clear. It was an early play and there’s a lot that…can do with cutting, let’s put it that way.
Rodriguez: Yeah. I mean, my hat’s off to David [Muse, the director] and Drew [Lichtenberg, dramaturg] and everybody who worked on it, because I feel that it is of a piece. He’s not interested in delving into the melodramatic or the overly sentimental. It’s not that it’s unemotional, the take, but it’s smart, what he did, and, I think, brave.
Shipley: He brings a lot of insight.
Rodriguez: There are lines that are very famous that are not in this production, and that’s a brave thing to do. So I’ve enjoyed our experience of the cut because its very intense and very active.
Mitchell: In a manner of speaking, Shakespeare reminds me of Law & Order. [Big laugh from the others.] Of course, the writing of Law & Order doesn’t compare to Shakespeare, but, every Law & Order — I’ve been in a few of them because, if you live in New York and you’re an actor, you’re going to do a Law & Order — they snatch that stuff right from the newspaper and make an episode from it. And the closer they are to what actually happened, the better that story is. But what I’m trying to get to is that I’m very, very fortunate that this woman actually lived, and there is such a legacy of information about who she was. It empowers me in a way that I feel she is almost channeling the information. It may seem far-fetched to some, but it does not to me; it makes me feel wonderful about respecting who she is.
Is the play good theatre, bad history?
Shipley: Shakespeare was writing for the Tudors. He had to malign the other King, so…
Rodriguez: Yeah, Richmond was Elizabeth [I]’s grandfather, so, there you go. I’ve got a great book called Shakespeare’s Histories and it takes the history plays, each one of them, and talks about them in terms of Elizabethan propaganda. So he was navigating a very — he had to be careful.
Shipley: The historical Richard was not necessarily as bad as the one in Shakespeare’s plays. They dug him up, in a parking lot in Leicester, and he didn’t seem to be deformed.
Rodriguez: Well, he had severe scoliosis.
Shipley: Scoliosis, yes.
Rodriguez: There’s this great documentary where, once they got the bones and did the measurements, they found a young man who was within, like, millimeters of the same kind of scoliosis, and had never had surgery or anything, and they put him on a horse, and tried to figure out the make of the saddle that he would had to have; the way the armor was fit. This guy, once they got him outfitted properly, they had a lance for him, and he hit with it every time.
Rodriguez: So, yeah: ‘A horse, a horse; my kingdom for a horse’ — without a horse, he’s powerless. That’s fascinating.
Mitchell: That is fascinating. But he was a pretty good strategist; war strategist.
In some productions, if Richard is so obviously a villain, it can make the other characters look stupid.
Rodriguez: Well, I will fault a director more than I will ever fault an actor for that. If everybody in the world of the play is stupid except Richard III, then the play — it’s out of balance. It can’t be successful. I felt like Matt [Matthew Rauch, who plays Richard] and David really tried very hard to navigate a real human being.
Shipley: Especially with the wooing scene between Richard and Anne.
Rodriguez: She’s powerful.
Shipley: She’s powerful and stands up to him. He’s also, Richard, such a good actor that you can believe him. I’m sure the audience, for a moment, thinks maybe he does love her and then, of course, she leaves the scene, and he says, ‘I’ll have her, but I will not keep her long.’ And you think, ‘Oh. I believed him. He convinced me; tears in his eyes.’ But it’s not ‘nudge, nudge, wink, wink’ to the audience.
Rodriguez: Even in that first scene, when he meets up with his brother Clarence, the brotherly, congenial nature of what Matt is bringing to it is that, when he says, ‘I love you so much that I’m going to send you to heaven’ — he does love him. He’s in the way. He’s gotta go. It’s fascinating.
Shipley: It’s a dark world to be in. The director has taken a very dark twist on the murder scenes. There’s nothing too much happens off-stage. You see the murders on-stage, and that is not necessarily in Shakespeare, so, what it is like to murder somebody is very —
Mitchell: …in a very graphic kind of way.
Shipley: So when we’re walking backstage, and there are the screams, and we look at the monitor, you see mayhem. We do a lot of this [holding hands] backstage.
Rodriguez: We do; we do.
Shipley: There’s definitely a sisterhood of people supporting each other, which in a strange way probably didn’t happen between the Duchess of York and Queen Elizabeth, because they were factional rivals in many ways, but that’s not in the play, and we’re not playing that. We’re playing that we’re women supporting each other — even with Margaret, though we were completely on different sides. There is an understanding, because of what Margaret does at the top of the play: to say, ‘There will come a time when you will want me to teach you how to curse,’ and that happens to every single person that she talks to.
Mitchell: The tone of the world is grim, but I think that us being able to see what’s going on, rather than be able to disguise it or deny it, is helpful because it’s only when you actually see something, and experience it yourself, that you really believe it. Otherwise the mind can come up with all kinds of justifications. So the veil is lifted, and what went on behind the stage, rather than on-stage, now goes on on-stage, so it’s much more compelling to me, and much more real about what really happens.
Rodriguez: The price.
Mitchell: If it’s right here in my face, then I have to come to another kind of conclusion about what is going on in my life, and so that justifies us seeing the murders, ‘cause they’re really not easy to watch at all.
Rodriguez: The kids today…! [There had been a student matinee before our talk.]
Shipley: You know, they don’t hold back about how they feel about things, so we heard very clearly; and that was kind of shocking for them. I’m sure it’s shocking for an adult audience.
Mitchell: Because you don’t expect it.
Shipley: There’s a large percussive element to this production with a lot of rhythm and feet banging and hands clapping that’s produced by the actors on-stage, so it’s quite powerful. (And there’s a soundtrack, too.) It must be quite visceral to be in the audience, because I’m sure they can feel it in their chests, as well as see what’s happening on-stage. It was very scary today with that bloody rag on the stage…
Rodriguez: Oh yeah — we’re not going to touch that! Of course, leave it to Lord Stanley [Michael Rudko]…
Shipley: He came in and very discreetly, after his first speech, just picked it up and moved it away.
Mitchell: I think that this particular rendition of Richard the Third offers a unique path into why Shakespeare is still vibrant so strongly in this day and time.
Shipley: And all those minor characters that have a comment: they’re human; the humanity of it. It’s quite incredible.
Mitchell: You know, maybe if this is somebody’s first time, this might be the hook.
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