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Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Shakespeare's Globe Richard III on Broadway

I wrote about Shakespeare’s Globe production of Twelfth Night yesterday, and today I would like to share my thoughts on the production of Richard III.

It was truly brilliant.
If you are anywhere near New York City, you must see it!
It is only playing for 16 weeks, so hurry up and buy your tickets ASAP!

For a schedule of performances and more information, please visit:

It is the best Richard III I have ever seen, and I doubt that I will ever see a production as perfect as this.
However, there are some problems, and there are several ways in which it could be even better.

I am not a professional theatre critic, but having studied this play so much and having written a version of it that sets in the Elizabethan world Shakespeare wrote it for, I do have some very specific criticisms of this production.
Last year I wrote about this production when it was performed at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London. A theatre critic wrote that he didn't like the humor. I defended the director, Tim Carroll, and Mark Rylance who were creating a Richard III that made you laugh.
I agree with them wholeheartedly. As I wrote my version of the Richard III play, I discovered that it is in fact a very funny comedy, and quite unlike any production I had ever seen.
So, imagine my delight when I had the opportunity to see the play for myself in New York City.

As I watched the play on Saturday night, I was very entertained and laughed often, thrilled to see the play so well performed -- and played for laughs.
Mark Rylance is a brilliant actor, and he made some very insightful choices in portraying the character of Richard III.

The way he walked with a little stooping gait, the way he talked with a manner that could turn from brash to pitiful in a second, the way he interacted with other characters was all riveting to watch. You can not take your eyes off him.
But when he turns to the audience and talks to us, he is far less effective.
The Richard III character must draw us in, seduce us, and make us want him to succeed against the others characters. He must makes us accomplices and co-conspirators in his evil deeds.
Mr. Rylance chose not to do this. His Richard is almost antagonistic with the audience, and he sets himself apart from us. 
There was one moment in the performance I saw, when he says: “Relenting fool, and shallow, changing woman!”
Someone in the audience made a disapproving sound. Mr. Rylance responded to this person, and made a sound of his own, which I would roughly translate as “Go stuff yourself!”
To me this was the funniest moment of the night, because it was the most Elizabethan moment. 

By that I mean that audiences in Shakespeare’s day were very loud and would not only make noise but talk back to the actors. The actors would be accustomed to this and would have to be prepared not only to perform their roles, but also to manage the crowds.
Mr. Rylance brilliantly turned the moment into humor, and the audience laughed.
However, instead of challenging the person in the audience, I think the moment would have been funnier if Richard would try to cajole the audience into agreeing with him.
So, instead of getting the audience to side with him, Mr. Rylance chose to perform the role without their support.
This is a critical error in my opinion and it damages the rest of the play.
Another error was his choice to play Richard as the same person for us and for the other characters on stage.
Richard should be played with two different faces. The face he shows to us, the audience, should be proud, vain and strong. The face he shows to the other characters should be weak and obsequious.
When he is crowned King in the play, he should remove the mask of weakness he has been wearing, and reveal himself to his court as the proud and strong man he really is.
While the production I saw worked quite well the way it was, I could see with my own eyes that it did not go far enough to entertain the audience.
From my seat, I could clearly see the audience members who were seated on the stage in seats that were built to resemble the galleries of the Globe.

Here is a shot from the Twelfth Night production, with some people from the audience seated on stage

Very often they looked distracted and bored. They were not engaged with the play.
They were especially disengaged when Mr. Rylance was not on stage. This makes a great deal of sense, since his character is the most entertaining, and the play is really all about him.
But even sometimes when Mr. Rylance is on the stage he did not fully capture their attention and entertain them.
If he had been playing to them throughout the play, trying to win their affection and constantly looking them in the eye, I doubt they would have looked as bored as they did.

He could even woo them in the early part of the play, and then turn on them in the later scenes. In effect, he has made his accomplices into his hostages on stage, jailed in the galleries.
This choice not to engage the audience also has a negative effect on the rest of the cast. 
The other actors are very very good, and they are obvious masters at their craft.
But Richard III is an odd play. Shakespeare does not want us to like any character in the play. They are all bad, and not one of them is deserving of our sympathy.

The stage is shared by murderers, jail-keepers, royals and aristocrats. The royal family comes across as pathetic and foolish. There is not one truly sympathetic character in the play. 
There is a very telling line about these royals when Clarence is confronted by the two murderers whom Richard III has sent to kill him. 
Clarence asks them who they are: “what art thou?”
One murderer says: “A man, as you are.”
Clarence chooses to insult these armed men: “But not, as I am, royal.”
What is Shakespeare doing? He is making us dislike Clarence, and perhaps even wishing that he would die as soon as possible.
Does Clarence’s jailer, the Keeper, really want to listen to Clarence’s dream, or does he yawn and listen without interest because he has nothing better to do?
I think it is funnier if Clarence is a insufferably royal bore. I think Shakespeare’s audience would have thrown food at him.
When Richard woos Anne over the body of her father, King Henry VI, are we really supposed to believe that she is virtuous and good?
By the end of the scene she has allowed herself to be wooed by the truly despicable Richard. So, she can not be as good as all that.
If she is not good, then perhaps she deserves not our pity, but our scorn. What kind of woman spends even a second with the man who killed her husband and her father?
There is so much comedy in this scene, and unfortunately this production misses it.
At the end of this scene, Mr. Rylance rushed the next lines of his soliloquy, some of the greatest lines in the entire play: “Was ever woman in this humour woo'd? Was ever woman in this humour won?”
It was a moment squandered, because it is one of the greatest opportunities for Richard III to woo and win the audience, to bring us to his side.
The character of Queen Elizabeth, and the rest of the courtiers for that matter, are misunderstood in this production. I have never seen a correct depiction of them, but it is again a lost opportunity to create more humor in the play.
King Edward IV’s wife, Queen Elizabeth, was not born of royal blood, but was a commoner.
Elizabeth Woodville was one of King Edward’s subjects, and he took the extraordinary step of marrying her. She was the first commoner to become Queen of England.
By marrying her, he elevated her and her entire family. But it also created a great deal of animosity, at court and in the country.
So, would Shakespeare’s audiences have liked her, her family, and her husband the King for having married her? 
Would that audience have considered her of true royal blood, or would they have disliked her and thought of her as a gold digging social climber?
In my version of Richard III, I have her speak in a common accent whenever possible, and then assume a fake royal accent while at court. This would have increased the humor and made Shakespeare’s audience hate her even more.

When she faces off with Richard late in the play, the audience should be rooting against her. We should want Richard to tear her to pieces like they are two animals in a bear-baiting ring. The other actors on stage should brandish their swords to build the suspense, and perhaps even find some jokes at her expense.

Mark Rylance with Samuel Barnett as Queen Elizabeth

In this version, she leaves the stage as the dominant character, as if she has won. Not only does this not make sense, but it is another lost opportunity for some humor.
Shakespeare does not want us to like any character, and he wants us to root for Richard as he kills off these characters. Even the Princes come off as brats. 
All of the characters are two-dimensional and flat. They are not meant to be fully formed characters. They are meant to be targets for Richard to shoot at.
The only character that seems to rise above the rest is Buckingham. He is the only character who attempts to be more than two-dimensional.
But ultimately he cannot. By the end he can no longer serve Richard in good conscience.
There are many reasons for this, and I explore them in my version of Richard III. Suffice to say that the relationship between Richard and Buckingham in the play strongly resembled the relationship between Christopher Marlowe and Shakespeare, and Shakespeare may have wanted to insert some of his own autobiography into the play.
Above all of these unlikeable two-dimensional characters stands Richard III. He is the only character with any depth and any dimension. He is the only three-dimensional character.
Shakespeare did this on purpose, and he does it frequently, especially in The Merchant of Venice. In that play, Shylock is the only real human character. The rest are caricatures.
Why does Shakespeare do this? Because in this play with all these bad and unlikeable people, Shakespeare wants us to want Richard III to succeed in his plots and schemes.
Shakespeare wants us to root for the bad guy. 
Of course, his audience would have known that Richard eventually gets killed, defeated at the Battle of Bosworth Field.
But while Richard lives, Shakespeare wants us to enjoy his attacks on the royals and aristocrats.
Why would Shakespeare want to do that? I explore this more fully in my version of Richard III, but suffice to say that while he was not an anarchist, I do think he had a healthy fear of monarchs and the absolute power they wield. 
If the other actors on stage play their parts as if the characters they play are good and virtuous and noble, then the play does not quite work. Their scenes become rather dull. 
If the other actors try to make the audience actively dislike them (and want to throw food at them) then there is greater potential to make them funny. Their scenes will come alive.
The last point I would like to make is that Richard III is a fascinating man, and a fascinating character.
I think we watch this play in the attempt to understand him, and understand the evil that he did. He is a mystery to this day.
While I applaud the director, Tim Carroll, and Mark Rylance for making this character funnier and more engaging than before, I do think that they rob the character of his mystery.
Mr. Rylance’s Richard III is a little too dim-witted and a little too weak. There is too much in this Richard III that is “Deformed, unfinish'd.”
Richard III says that while he cannot be like most men, he is “determined to prove a villain.”
I think Shakespeare’s wrote his Richard III character to be much stronger than he was portrayed in this production. 
In conclusion, I strongly urge you to see this version of the play. It is well worth your time, and there is so much of the play that will entertain you and make you laugh.


David B. Schajer

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