A Psychopathic Quest for Power, Well Rendered But Less Than Truly Shakespearean
Productions of Shakespeare set in times and places other than when and where the Bard initially put them typically run into tradeoffs not forced upon conventionally staged productions. They often entertain us, even thrill us, by opening up certain aspects of the play, while at the same time more often than not they shortchange other aspects. Baltimore Shakespeare Festival's new Richard III, done in modern dress under Michael Carleton's direction, is no exception.
Carleton has envisioned Richard, Duke of Gloucester, as the prototype of the amoral modern politician who will stop at nothing to achieve power. While professing the purest and most altruistic of motives, he holds no allegiance but to himself; he is the master of media and manipulator of appearances. Though this type of leader has been a constant throughout human history, Carleton obviously sees him as especially rife in our present day. To drive the point home, Carleton has Richard's famous opening monologue delivered in part as if it were a victory speech after a political campaign, shows some of the events being broadcast on CNN, and invests much of the proceedings with a Georgetown-y air. And by golly, he's right. The effect is not much different from that of Fair Game, the movie about l'affaire Valerie Plame now playing in the local bijou. Smooth well-connected men with attaché cases and wire-rim glasses and little commitment to truth or fair play can indeed run the show from behind the scenes. They may look a bit different from the historical Gloucester and Buckingham, but they do the same things. And the working out of this parallelism is kinda cool.
Fair enough, but Shakespeare's royal history plays have a lot going on that fits only indifferently well into this matrix. The fights over the British throne chronicled in these plays were fights among relatives who were not only politicians but military leaders, combining family drama, Georgetown, and the front lines, if you will. The crowds of commoners who make their occasional appearances were not sources of legitimacy, as the electorate is in a democracy, but sources of mob misjudgment if not mob rule. Hence the danger of a miseducated public posed by manipulated or imperceptive media coverage would not have loomed large for Shakespeare. He had no First Amendment values. We must not confuse Shakespeare's orthodox Tudor absolutism with a yearning for public-spiritedness or personal authenticity in politicians. Shakespeare was much more concerned that leaders be legitimate (legitimacy in turn being largely a matter of inheritance construed according to the correct rules), than that they be honest or honorable. It was uncertainty about the grasp of the leader on power more than how the leader might misuse it that most bothered Shakespeare.
Of course, Shakespeare as a dramatist had every intention of assuring that Richard seize our imagination at the outset, and never let it go. Shakespeare's Richard is therefore a well-rounded character with far more to him than a monomaniacal pursuit of power. And the first thing a well-directed Richard will do toward that end, in the opening soliloquy, is seduce the audience. We may not like him, but he makes us an offer we can't refuse: he will afford us a window into his dark doings, and we in turn will not utterly despise him. He is born deformed, and his jealousy of the well-shaped, even if they are his relatives, gives him a motive.
The way Seth Reichgott is directed to play him, Richard is merely despicable from the word go. There is no hurt pride, no getting even, not even malice in this Richard, only ambition. It is all this Richard knows. Indeed, for the fadeout at the end of Act III, where this production places the intermission, Richard, having just achieved the crown, actually looses a Snidely Whiplash bwa-ha-ha-ha of demented triumph. Because this Richard is so divorced from ordinary human emotion, he not only fails to seduce the audience, but critically fails to make even slightly believable his seduction of the Lady Anne (Jessica Perich), literally over the corpse of her husband, whom Richard acknowledges having killed. Laurence Olivier in the 1955 movie was able to pull off this scene because, under the prosthetic nose and harsh black wig, he still had his matinee idol good looks and winsome manner. It is no insult to Reichgott to say that he lacks Olivier's extraordinary resources in those departments, and physically reminds one far more of Richard Nixon or Rahm Emanuel than of, say, John Kennedy.