Presented by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival at the Angus BowmerTheatre, Ashland, Oregon. February 18-October 30, 2005. Directed by Libby Appel. Set by Rachel Hauck. Costumes by Mara Blumenfeld. Lighting by Robert Peterson. Sound by Todd Barton. Fights by John Sipes. With James Newcomb (Richard), Robert Vincent Frank (Clarence, Bishop of Ely), Richard Elmore (King Edward, Cardinal), Linda Alper/Robynn Rodriguez (Duchess of York), Suzanne Irving (Queen Elizabeth), Robin Goodrin Nordli (Queen Margaret), Laura Morache (Lady Anne), Matt McTighe (Rivers, Lord Mayor of London), Kyle Haden (Dorset), Chris Maddox (Grey), Jason McBeath (Vaughan, Tyrrell), Jonathan Haugen (Hastings), Michael Elich (Buckingham), Brad Whitmore (Stanley), Travis Bond (Prince Edward), Kyle Barnes (York), Tyrone Wilson (Catesby), Danforth Comins (Second Murderer, Richmond), and others.
OSF's latest sweep through the history tetralogies, beginning with guest director Michael Edwards's 1 Henry IV in 1998, culminated this year in Libby Appel's Richard III. Appel directed the other plays in the series, including memorable, moving productions of 2 Henry IV and Henry V, a misconceived Richard II, and (with co-director Scott Kaiser) stripped-down versions of the three Henry VI plays. The strongest of the season's Shakespeare offerings, Richard III ran for eight months and 127 performances.
The production's austere set had a matte-black finish, a single column, and virtually no furniture. A narrow staircase descended away from the audience's sight, upstage right, and a low rampart crossed the back wall, with two tiers of steps descending to the floor, stage left. The unhistorical costume design used silhouettes and fabrics that alluded to, rather than copied, medieval and Renaissance dress--bright and glittering for the court's males, somber black for the mourning women.
Text cuts exaggerated the play's insistent focus on its fascinating protagonist. James Newcomb, as Richard, took his cue from Anthony Sher's legendary "bottled spider" performance (RSC, 1984). Richard's hump and withered arm and leg were less noticeable than the forearm crutches which he used to skitter across the stage in quick bursts of motion. His entrances for his opening soliloquy and his coronation effectively divided the play into the contrasting tales of his meteoric rise to win the crown and his slower, inexorable fall. Even the ill-considered framing device that brought the play's disconsolate female characters on first could not obliterate the power of Richard's initial entrance. He exploded out of the darkness upstage, charging straight at the audience, a frighteningly uninterpretable shape until he reached the center-stage pool of light. Newcomb delivered Richard's first speech with amusing, confident authority. Some playgoers grumbled predictably about "inappropriate" laughter, but Newcomb's Richard brilliantly achieved the seduction of his complicit audience, charmed at first by his witty words but revulsed later by his bloody deeds.
Richard's coronation marked his apex. To martial music, he descended downstage trailing a ridiculously long train of red satin and wearing a look of determined, inward self-satisfaction. Then, startlingly, he tripped and fell, shook off his courtiers' proffered aid, and glared at the audience. The confiding charm was gone, and Richard's downhill slide was underway.
The production also pointed up nicely the parallel scenes in which Richard masterfully uses his powers of persuasion on Lady Anne and Queen Elizabeth, signaling his success in the first instance by Anne's proud smile upon accepting his ring. Even more compelling was Richard's ambiguous encounter with Queen Elizabeth, to advance his plan of marrying her daughter. Queen Elizabeth's opaque parrying of Richard's sexually aggressive suit, with verbal dexterity and an answering kiss, left him assured of his conquest and left us uncertain of what we had just witnessed.
The moment made Elizabeth a more effective figure of female resistance than Queen Margaret, whose role Appel amplified by bringing her onstage whenever others recalled her prophetic curses; the director also began and ended the play with Margaret, Elizabeth, the Duchess of York, and Anne singing the antiphonal lines from 4.4 ("I had an Edward till a Richard killed him ...") while wandering about the stage. Thinking that the aged queen would seem insufficiently powerful, Appel put a youngish Margaret in a dirty, tattered gown, breastplate, combat boots, platinum blonde wig, and pallid make-up that left playgoers uncertain whether she was a ghost or a human presence.
The production's foregrounding of female victims passed for a feminist interpretation of Richard III in the same vague way that its vacuously self-righteous Richmond (artfully achieved by Danforth Comins) passed for a political statement, inviting us to see history as an unending succession of ruthless, power-corrupted men and helpless victims. Both these politically quiescent gestures felt like afterthoughts, the real muscle of the production going into its psychologized presentation of Richard. The production's script systematically stripped away nearly everything that makes Richard III the political tragedy of a whole country, rather than one man or a family dynasty. Richard's victims were silenced almost as effectively by the OSF script as by Richard himself. Clarence's agonized, conscience-stricken reflection upon his dream was cut short, as was his urgent debate with the men sent to murder him. Clarence's children, too, were excised. The beautiful and moving speech of recognition in which Hastings compares the ambitious man to a "drunken sailor on a mast" was omitted. Child actors perhaps accounted for cuts to the little princes' scene, but the effect nonetheless was to short-change Shakespeare's investment in the pathos of their deaths and to lose the historical perspective provided by Prince Edward's meditation on the legacy that a great monarch (Julius Caesar) might leave. The production also erased the "three citizens" scene, with its deft miniature portrait of a whole nation anxiously wondering what the regime change portends for ordinary people. Gone, too, was the scrivener's scene. Collectively, these cuts bespoke a production little interested in the world beyond the psychology of personality and human relationships.
It is hard to think of a time when Shakespeare's Richard III might have spoken more incisively to Americans than in the months during which the company prepared its script and rehearsed the play, not long after an outwardly pious administration, of questionable legitimacy, had consolidated its power by driving the country to war with a campaign of falsehoods about "weapons of mass destruction":
Who is so gross That cannot see this palpable device? Yet who so bold but says he sees it not? Bad is the world, and all will come to naught When such ill dealing must be seen in thought.
At a time when news media, managed by the entertainment divisions of multinational corporations, had failed us, a theatre company could have staged a Richard III that really mattered--not by laboring heavy-handedly to establish parallels with the misdeeds of the current administration, but simply by letting the scrivener's words--Shakespeare's words--be spoken freely on a public stage.
ALAN ARMSTRONG, Southern Oregon University