Shakespeare isn’t easy: the vocabulary, the subplots — even the names can be stumbling blocks.
Keeping the characters straight in Julius Caesar was a challenge: Cinna the conspirator and Cinna the Poet? Julius Caesar and Octavius Caesar? Marcus Brutus and Decius Brutus?
But Julius Caesar was a piece of cake compared to Richard III’s roster of intertwined and intermarried Yorks and Lancasters battling for the throne. My eyes crossed trying to read the genealogical tree tacked up on the wall of the Actors Shakespeare Project rehearsal space. I spent several hours in that room, watching the actors practice scenes — usually out of order, which made R3 into a jigsaw puzzle that only exacerbated my confusion about who was who.
Reading the play would have made it worse, not only because of the quicksand of soul-killing footnotes. The ASP script, like virtually all working scripts of R3, is different from the complete text, which is invariably cut because it would take four hours to perform in full.
So I took to video for help and watched four different productions of Richard III recorded over a span of 60 years.
In 1955, Sir Lawrence Olivier adapted and directed himself as Richard wearing a stagey fake nose and pageboy wig. Sir Ian McKellen’s 1995 Technicolor adaptation is set in a 1930s-ish Nazi-ish world; guns rather than swords.
The BBC filmed Richard III twice. I was grateful for the 1982 version, which included the entire text — all four hours — and Ron Cook’s subtle portrayal of Richard. The 2016 BBC production was lovingly filmed in castles and churches around England. Benedict Cumberbatch starred, and as the camera zoomed in on his face, the soliloquies landed with a cold, measured malice that was as weirdly sexy as it was pure evil.
The screen time became a tutorial in the recent history of acting styles and TV production values, and by the end of it, I did know who was who, who was headed for the block, and why. But that kind of knowing pales when compared with being in the room where it happens.
The room chosen by Actors Shakespeare Project for its production of Richard III was the Swedenborg Chapel in Cambridge, Mass. Built in 1901 in a style called “English Gothic Revival” (wood, stone, marble, stained glass) it wasn’t so much a theater as a time machine.
The entire chapel was the stage, so no curtain: the play began with a booming alarum of drums that bounced off every surface and landed in my chest. The actors rushed in and stood beside the pews to deliver the famous opening line right in our faces. “This is the winter of our discontent.”
We snapped to attention. Richard (Steve Barkheimer) walked in, one arm strapped tightly to his chest, signifying both his physical and spiritual deformity. (Hard to forget we were in a church.) Within minutes he tells us, “I am determined to prove a villain,” and we become his accomplices.
Live theater is a ritual, a kind of communion (even if you’re not in a church) that requires audiences and actors sharing space and time, story and breath; it’s an exchange of emotional commitment and suspension of disbelief. This can’t happen in front of a screen, or in rehearsal.
Words alone don’t account for this alchemy, not even when the words are Shakespeare’s. When Queen Elizabeth (Paula Plum) learns her two young sons have been murdered, her sobs and wails are what brought tears to my eyes, and it was a physical reflex, like the opening drums that made my heart race, or the sound of a siren in the distance that sets dogs to howling.
Even if you “know” a play, moments like that take you unaware and make every production, every performance a surprise. Sometimes it’s a laugh, sometimes it’s a gesture, and sometimes it’s an actor’s performance.
Richmond is the savior-warrior who doesn’t show up until the last few scenes where he makes a few nice speeches, kills Richard in battle, and is crowned the new king. On the page and in the productions I screened, Richmond was noble enough, and a strapping fellow, but sort of an empty suit of armor.
In Swedenborg Chapel, however, Deaon Griffin-Pressley filled him out. Richmond’s prayer for victory was sincere as well as urgent. His exhortation to the troops was heart-felt and inspiring. His voice and his stance exuded strength, self-confidence and faith in the future. In other words he was young and hopeful — a vivid contrast to the rest of the dramatis personae who, by the end of the evening, were morally bankrupt or compromised, damaged, or defeated, or dead.
Thanks to Richmond, the audience could go home comforted — not by a happy ending, but by a new beginning. Catharsis accomplished.
Leaving the church after that performance, it was hard not to reflect about our own rapacious rulers and enabling courtiers. And to rejoice in the ranks of fresh-faced, well-spoken, and determined kids, ready to do battle with the old order.
I keep learning: Shakespeare is always timely. #NeverAgain.