4 stars · Play Reviews · Shakespeare

Richard III {play review}

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Two nights ago, I went to see Richard III at the Vertigo Theater with my Shakespeare class. It was the opening night of the play and a new take on the classic story for many; however, it was my very first time ever going to see a play. I might have been biased due to this fact, but I was absolutely enchanted by my experience.

The acting was phenomenal. From gut-wrenching sobbing to the dramatic dream scene, I was kept on the edge of my seat. I was particularly impressed with the actor who played Richard, the villain. As Richard is a cripple, the actor kept his leg slightly off the ground and twisted a little – he never let go of this hobbling position. Even with eerie villainous laughs, Richard still managed to keep the audience enchanted by him, swayed by his own humorous words – which is just exactly how Shakespeare meant Richard to be. The actor did such an amazing job, in fact, that I would definitely go to see a play just to see him perform again. Lady Margaret was also amazing – so much so that she seemed even better on the stage than she did on paper (but the, the stage is where she belongs, isn’t it?)

For anyone who isn’t familiar with the play, Richard III is about Richard, Lord of Gloucester, who is determined to get to the throne (and keep it), even if that means murdering and marrying anyone who is in his way. He is depicted as a hunchbacked cripple and has many soliloquies in which he tells the audience of his dastardly plans. In short, his plan is to act a kind and pious man, even when he really is the cause of all the kingdom’s woes (“One may smile, and smile, and be a villain.”) Interestingly enough, as an aside, the real Richard was actually a truly good and pious man – but as history is written by the victors, Shakespeare needed to write a play that would validate Elizabeth’s line and her ascension to the throne.

I really liked how the play was bookmarked by an echoing of the same phrase greeting a king of England. The play began with the entire cast entering the stage, shouting, “Long live Edward, king of England!” – and then freezing so that Richard could begin his first soliloquy. Near intermission, the same phrase greets Richard when he finally gains his heart’s desire – and then, after Richard is vanquished, the play ends on the note of “Long live Henry, king of England!” I found such a choice to be quite powerful, highlighting the three different kings and their different ascensions to the throne.

Another element of this production I really enjoyed was that women were given a bigger role. Much like Shakespeare’s own acting troupe, there was a set number of actors for the play and, therefore, some played several roles (except, of course, now women are involved). For instance, the actress who played Lady Anne later played a soldier, and a woman played Lord Catesby, whose role was combined with that of one of Clarence’s murderers. I thought the latter was quite a clever choice, adding more to the original story. (More about Catesby later.) Lady Margaret, the harbinger of fell tidings, who warned the court of Richard’s treachery from the very beginning, later comforts Queen Elizabeth (Edward’s widow) and the Duchess of York (Richard’s mother). The two women ask Margaret how to curse Richard. In a symbolic scene in which Margaret passes her strength to the the other women, Margaret gives the women the items she has always been holding up until this moment in the play – her baby goes to Elizabeth; she presents a sword-like cross to Richard’s mother. Then, the three walk hand-in-hand (or, arm-in-arm in the case of Margaret and the Duchess), showing how women take strength in each other.

While I did love the play, there were a few elements which I did not like. In the original version of the play, Lord Catesby talks to Sir Brakenbury, trying to win him over to Richard’s side. However, this company decided to portray this scene in a much different light. Instead, Catesby seduces Brakenbury in a BDSM/dominatrix-like way. Personal opinions aside, besides the fact that this choice was very strange (a nice way of putting it), it didn’t even work as Brakenbury doesn’t even agree to side with Richard – and is later murdered – thereby making the scene irrelevant. As it is, the scene is a distasteful display, meant merely for shock value.

Richard is known for his honeyed words, seducing Lady Anne over her dead husband’s body (whom he, of course, murdered) and then later getting Queen Elizabeth to agree to let him marry her daughter, even though Elizabeth knows that Richard killed her sons. Elizabeth is shown to be a weak character. While Richard’s mother curses her son before he rides to the battlefield (another powerful scene), Edward’s wife merely affirms the speech with an “Amen.” Then, after she agrees to let Richard marry her daughter, there is another strange staging choice – Richard bids her bring a kiss to her daughter for him, and then proceeds to kiss her. While Richard has already been shown to be vulgar, Elizabeth responds to the kiss, almost appearing to like it. While this choice further shows what a weak woman she is and how skillful Richard is with his words, the kiss shocked me and was a little too Freudian for my liking.

Anything else I noticed was more trivial, things that just seemed a little unprofessional. The throne was so light, for instance, that the actors had to steady it from time to time. Richard attempted to catch one of the renowned strawberries in his mouth and failed (of course, that could have been on purpose).

However, all in all, the play was quite good. I loved how Lady Margaret began to appear in the background as the play went on, showing the court’s impending doom. The death scenes were comic (but what else would you expect from Shakespeare). I really liked the scene in which Richard opens the coffin, and, after Edward steps in, Richard lets the lid fall shut with a bang and then jumps upon the coffin. Such a scene, symbolizing the fact that it was Richard who indirectly sent ailing king to his grave, was quite powerful. The dream scene, in which the people whom Richard has killed appear with the object with which they were killed, was probably the best scene of the entire play – it was so well done.

In summary, I found my first playgoing experience very enjoyable, and I hope to see many of the Bard’s plays in the future.

4/5 stars

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