Today’s advice: When your bread is buttered by the Tudors, don’t write nice things about their enemies - not even their dead enemies. Shakespeare understood this. His “Richard III”, loosely designated a “History play”, features his first truly villainous leading character, the eponymous Richard.
After all, what playwright would dare suggest that his queen was descended from anything less than heroes who had saved the realm from a shockingly brutal despot? But there was Elizabeth I’s grandfather, Henry VII, who had a tenuous claim to the throne at best. The blacker the Richard, the better the Henry.
Good story, not good history. “Richard III” is not just the fictionalized chronicle of how one ambitious king slashed a bloody path to the throne but could not secure it. It is a heavily cautionary tale for all times, a reminder to the credulous and optimistic among us of the uniquely human “desire to believe the best when the worst is evident.”
Throngs of such people stand culpably behind every tyrant in history, and Shakespeare has his own Richard commenting with delight on the gullibility that works in his favor. (Lenin called them “useful idiots.”)
Director David Muse hopes to exploit the extreme darkness and death in the script. Unfortunately, it doesn’t translate into the desired effect.
Before we hear about the winter of our discontent, we see the set. Scene designer Debra Booth’s stage is as repellant as it is puzzling. Grey cinder block, rusty pipes, metal doors, dripping water stains – is it the basement of a factory? No wait, there’s a gigantic operation theatre light hanging from the ceiling. A hospital? Which means that murders aren’t carried out in violent 15th century style, but with victims strapped down on gurneys. The occasional change of scene never transcends these grimy surroundings.
I get that the reign of Richard was grim with underpinnings of paranoia; putting it on a stage where we don’t want to be for five minutes, much less two and half hours, is not an effective way to do it.
Adding to the unavoidable sense of reach exceeding grasp is the device of back players sharpening knives in rhythm, and occasionally whole lines of figures slapping their chests and pounding sticks. Some “cool ideas” just don’t work in practice, and this one comes dangerously close to a cliché of amateur drama. The occasional heavy pounding of rock music doesn’t help the impression.
Not all is lost. The purest light is the performance of Matthew Rauch as the maligned – and malignant - Richard. Wearing a brace and carrying a cane as a nod to his disability (which was actually scoliosis) he is strong enough to be seen for the leader he was, and charismatic enough to explain the successful seduction of Lady Anne (Cara Ricketts) over the body of her dead husband, the Prince of Wales.
The doomed Clarence (Cody Nickell) has a simplicity and trust that makes his betrayal hard to watch. Having no reason to suspect his perfidious brother of sponsoring the arrest, his certainty that Richard will free him creates a lead-weighted irony.
Nowhere does the exasperating optimism of peacemaking ring more soundly than when the ailing King Edward IV (David Bishins) attempts to make his own faction reconcile with the Woodvilles, his wife’s ambitious family. Like children on a playground being forced to hiss their apologies through clenched teeth, they give the king what he wants and no one, except maybe Jimmy Carter, could be expected to believe that this pact will last.
The treachery and murders continue. A wildly mournful Queen Margaret, (Lizan Mitchell) widow of Henry VI, enters like a vengeful Cassandra, full of curses and predictions (some of which were difficult to hear). This is the Mother of All Women Scorned, and many will have reason to recall her words before it’s over.
The betrayal of Buckingham (strong performance by Christopher McFarland) who stood by the king as the most solid of confidantes and fellow schemers – up to but not including the murder of the princes in the Tower – signals the rapid unravelling of the increasingly paranoid king. Denied rewards once promised, Buckingham defects, is captured and executed.
And then there is Henry Tudor, soon to be Henry VII, carrying the weight of a nation seeking deliverance. It is not Evelyn Spahr’s fault or any comment on her acting ability that she was cast as the future king, but it was a mistake. Gender and race flexibility have become a norm in theatre, but this example is a large speed bump to the audience’s investment in the story. Mr. Muse should find some other script with which to be daring and modern.
Sad to say, Murell Horton’s costumes are as muddled in concept as the set. Shades of grey are understandable. Navy officers’ uniforms are not. Other than the monochromatic dullness, nothing unifies them in place or time.
A few moments find their mark. The visitation of the ghosts of Richard’s victims the night before Bosworth Field is moderately chilling, but by this time, the chest slapping and stick pounding are gratuitous.
Richard III, the only English king to die in battle, is also the only one to have his own posthumous society dedicated to defending his name; however, “Richard III” is concerned with Tudor truth. Unfortunately, truth, half-truth, lies, and slander all go down the same rusty pipes in this ambitious but ultimately unsatisfying production.
WANT TO GO?
What: Richard III
Where: Shakespeare Theatre Co., Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW, Washington, D.C.
Call: (202) 547-1122 or visit ShakespeareTheatre.org
Playing through March 10