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.
Hence, at least during the part of the play devoted to Richard's rise, this production trades away much of the richness of Shakespeare's characterization and thinking in order to underline parallels with today's perversions of governance. The part of the play dealing with Richard's fall is, fortunately, another matter.
As Shakespeare knew, no sooner had the historicAl Richard been crowned (July 6, 1483) than things fell apart for him. The Duke of Buckingham's rebellion, which Shakespeare shows us, was only three months later, and Richard died in battle with his successor Richmond on August 22, 1485. As both Shakespeare and Carleton would have it, that shocking loss of grip on power is not merely a matter of having enemies; it was also a loss of grip, period. Richard the character has been so focused on achieving power, he has no idea how to conduct himself when he has it. He pointlessly alienates and liquidates his closest ally, becomes dangerously paranoid, and is unmanned by doom-laden nightmares on the eve of battle. When Carleton is running along the rails Shakespeare laid down, the production travels more smoothly. I particularly liked the use of video monitors to convey the appearance of the phantasms (harshly lit from below) in the nightmare scene. Carleton and Reichgott's Richard cracking up is Richard as Shakespeare envisioned him.
The other aspect of this staging that I question is the thin casting. There are only 10 adult actors to fill all the roles. I understand the practical issues that every theater company has to deal with, and I do not doubt that there were reasons. Still, the small cast makes impractical presenting more than a fraction of the characters Shakespeare wrote into the play. And so the play gets cut, and perhaps primarily because of the small cast. I should hasten to add that it is a rare production of the play without cuts, many of them deserved (not all of Richard is great writing). But when so many characters are peeled away (bishops, nobles, assassins, soldiers, a prophetic grandmother, children bereaved by Richard's murder of their parents) a great deal of texture comes away with them. And I'm sorry, a Shakespearean battle scene with only six actors just does not work; typically there is an interplay between military leaders and troops which requires some minimum numbers to be effective. (Shakespeare's history plays are pageants, not chamber pieces.) Here the point is that Richmond can command loyalty, and Richard cannot, and if you cannot see troops reacting to them, you will miss what's going on. The audience is rendered as clueless as Richard about why Richard is losing.
That is not a good thing. At the outset, Richard promises the audience, implicitly, that it will understand what's really going on. And it is part of Shakespeare's genius that after the turning point at the end of Act III, when Richard begins to lose it, Richard's covenant is still honored, even if Richard himself is too unstable to narrate any more. If the Battle of Bosworth Field is nothing more than guns going off and a fight to the death between Richard and Richmond, the audience will lack the information it needs to receive the benefit of the bargain. (And no fair having Richard kill his loyal henchman Catesby out of pique to exemplify his failures of leadership; Shakespeare writes no such thing, and history records that Catesby was captured and beheaded by Richmond.)
In short, this production is a fine demonstration, well acted by the hard-worked ensemble, of how psychopaths have gained power throughout the ages. It can be enjoyed as such. It is not, however, Shakespeare at anything like full strength.
Richard III by William Shakespeare, at Baltimore Shakespeare Festival, 3900 Roland Avenue, Baltimore, MD 21211, through December 19. Tickets $26. (410) 366-8596, http://www.baltimoreshakespeare.org. Some violence, loud gunplay.