Saw Richard III at Stratford this weekend. The “hook” on this production, of course, is that Stratford long-timer Seana McKenna plays the lead. Truth is, though, that you forget about 30 seconds in that he’s a she (except for a few small gestures which I’ll talk about later).
Director Miles Potter went for a very spare set, which is usually a good idea at Tom Patterson, since the audience is pretty much on the stage. A small detail, but one used to great effect, was the clanging of curtain hangers used to punctuate the end of key scenes as various characters disappeared to backstage.
One of the reasons we were interested in this one was the unusual opportunity to see some female powerhouses sharing the stage with McKenna: Martha Henry, Roberta Maxwell and Yanna McIntosh. All of whom I’ve seen many times now.
I didn’t love the play, but it was good. At a runtime of almost 3 hours, it moved at a fast clip and the body count alone is enough to rival any summer blockbuster. Actually, as I was watching it, I was having little moments of insight between this kind of thing and, say, Game of Thrones. If you don’t know much about the play, it’s one of Shakespeare’s earliest, and chronicles the killing spree, ascension and eventual death of Richard III–a man whose obvious deformity was thought to be a manifestation of his inner monster in his own time, and in Shakespeare’s.
McKenna definitely does justice to the role. At times wheedling, always entertaining, her physical delivery (crucial to pulling off the role) is very good and understated for the most part. As I mentioned, there were two little times when my brain went, “It’s a girl, ” not that I was looking to catch her up. One was when she wipes away some tears, and something about the placement of her hand was very feminine. The other was when she smiled, for some reason it seemed very girly.
McIntosh was an overwrought Queen Elizabeth. She seemed more stilted than what I’m used to seeing from her, but I’d say also that the writing is none to subtle in this play, and that possibly had an effect. When Henry first arrived on the stage, the whole audience sat straighter and waiting for her to speak. And since she got to lay a curse on a whole bunch of people straight off, it was quite fun to watch her invective.
Other than Richard, what’s interesting is that most of the men are kind of interchangeable. They plot. They pretend friendship. They call war and jostle for position. Nigel Bennet stood out, as did Sean Arbuckle, whose permanent smirk in service of Richard was probably the most evil part of the play.
Then there’s the ghosts. Again, not sure you can have spoilers on Shakespeare, but basically Richard goes too far and a civil war ensues under Richmond (later Henry Tudor VII). On the eve of the battle, the ghosts of the many people he killed to get the throne (including the “two princes”, sons of his brother the former king) come back to haunt him in his sleep, and aid the other side to kill Richard the next morning.
The battle scene was done in slo-mo, which some critics liked and some didn’t. But I think from a staging perspective, it had to be done that way for the chorus of ghosts to be seen to interact and to make their ghostly emanations. It was short enough to be effective, I thought, but if it went on longer I think it would have lost its impact.
Overall: pretty good.