Monday, 18 February 2013

Thoughts around Richard the Third.

Following the recent finding of the remains of King Richard the Third beneath a car park in Leicester I thought I would look back on a production of Shakespeare's 'Richard III' that I was involved in 2008. It was directed by Cynthia Marsh for The Lace Market Theatre in Nottingham and Richard was played by Chris Ireson. Although still of some playing length the play was cut and the dress code a mix of modern and Elizabethan styles. It also played in repertoire with a play called Terrorism by The Presnyakov Brothers with a translation bySasha Dugdale and this was directed by Martin Berry.

The links were the emotion of fear and the chaos and friction that irrational and real fear cause. Some of the cast in Richard III were also in Terrorism. I was not so brave to commit myself to both plays in one week and quite content to gets to grips with the Shakespeare, thank ye all the same.

The casting for Richard III was for over fifteen actors who often played multiple roles: I, for example; played Derby (Lord Stanley), a gentleman, a citizen, Rivers (brother of Elizabeth; Lord Mayor, Tyrell, Surrey and, to add contrast a bit of humour, a very camp Bishop of Ely.

One young man, new to the theatre and never seen again afterwards, played Grey, Lovell, a guard and one of the murderers and decided that, unfortunately, due to a vigorous bought of projectile vomiting, he couldn't make our last performance on the Saturday matinée. His mother phoned in just one hour before we were due to 'go up' (start the matinée performance) and so the rest of the cast frantically busied around sharing his roles between them. Thankfully his woeful acting skills weren't up to much and he had very few lines, therefore we were able adjust and to get by without him. I think it leant to a much more pacey show! There was certainly a sword sharp edge to the performances that afternoon. We told some friends who had been to see the show and they said they couldn't tell that we had an actor down. There's no business like show business as they say.

To paraphrase Cynthia, the director, she felt that the two plays presented during this exciting week were disparate; one late 16th Century, one 20th Century; one presenting a violent King the other presenting modern day violence in all its forms. She said that 'Richard the Third propagandised the founding of the House of Tudor to Elizabethan England beset by its own succession worries. Terrorism locates violence and bullying in the routines of contemporary life: travel, sex, work, gossipping and the banter of the changing room.' Source: programme notes.

Interestingly, the very unusual fact that we had two plays running together during our week long run echoed an almost bygone age of repertory theatre and like our Richard III actors playing several roles, seemingly effortlessly, (historically, known as the sweating lords for very good reason as, like us, they ripped off one costume and donned another set of clothes and identity) they would also have played several parts in Rep. Given the massive amount of Shakespearean text our Richard and the cast had to learn and perform this was no mean feat!

Some interesting things about the play Richard III generally.
  • Shakespeare's main source for the play was the historian Raphael Hollinshed and Shakespeare's (strongly Tudor influenced) portrait of Richard took a great deal from Sir Thomas More's work, History of King Richard the Third.

  • The ruthless ambition and semi satanic moral code given by Shakespeare to Richard were intended to make the usurpation of Henry VII (grandfather of Queen Elizabeth) seem necessary. Remember that Shakespeare's company needed the financial and royal support of the Queen to exist. The plays written could not afford to be seen as anti Queen Elizabeth or of her line. Heads would roll!
  • Some modern day defenders of Richard (the man) believe that Shakespeare's portrayal of him as Richard Gloucester and King Richard in the play are unfair. Alas the play's popularity and continual success in the theatre and in film continues to convince people that he was evil, manipulating and violent.

  • Richard III shows off some of Shakespeare's early formal verse at its best. The extraordinary scene where Richard woos the ultra reluctant Anne (act 1 scene II ) gains many of its effects by means of its clever use of parallel, quasi sing song constructions. “Was ever woman in this humour woo'd? Was ever woman in this humour won?” Despite initially hating him, Anne is won over by his pleas of love and repentance and agrees to marry him. When she leaves, Richard exults in having won her over despite all he has done to her, and tells the audience that he will discard her once she has served her purpose. Nice guy! Poor gal!

  • Other courtly women in the play hate the manipulating king more and more as he plots the murders of children and adults alike on his rise to corruption and power. The distraught Queen Margaret exemplifies this point in her famous speech lamenting the existence of King Richard and his terrible deeds: we join the speech at it's climax here:

Queen Margaret: ... No sleep close up that deadly eye of thine, unless it be while some tormenting dream fright's thee with a hell of ugly devils! Thou elvish-marked, abortive, rooting hog! Thou that was sealed in thy nativity the slave of nature and the son of hell! Thou slander of thy heavy mother's womb! Thou loathed issue of thy father's loins! Thou detested...

Richard: Margaret.

Queen Margaret: Richard!!

  • In the play, Clarence dies after Richard is named Protector (how ironic!): in reality, Clarence died five years beforehand. Here and elsewhere William Shakespeare the playwright took historical liberties to dramatically construct his play.

Famous critics have said:

“Crimes are Richard's delights but Macbeth is always in agony when he thinks of them” (Thomas Whately)

“The hump... the conscience, the fear of ghosts, all impart a spice of outragousness which leaves nothing lacking to the fun of the entertainment, except the solemnity of those spectators that feel bound to take the affair as a profound and subtle historic play.” (George |Bernard Shaw)

“There is another peculiarity of the present drama which ought to be mentioned – the frequent use of the curse, it is a terrific weapon and is employed here with terrific violence. (Denton J Snider).

My recommendations in books and films:

Year of the King by Anthony Sher: I read this back in the 1980s and it is a very accessible record of Anthony Sher's acceptance of the role of King Richard for the RSC and Barbican and his journey as an actor to discover another way of portraying the crippled king with the ghost of Laurence Oliver's well known depiction of Richard III on his heels. This terrific book is also illustrated with Sher's wonderful sketches and drawings. Highly recommended.


Richard III: The 1996 film with Sir Ian McKellan playing the title role is set in Britain in the 1930s and offers yet another slant on duplicitous evil. In this version civil war has erupted with the House of Lancaster on one side, claiming the right to the British throne and hoping to bring freedom to the country. Opposing is the House of York, commanded by the infamous Richard who rules over a fascist government and hopes to install himself as a dictator monarch. The film is severely edited for text but gives a very clear depiction to Richard's rise to power and his downfall through violent means. I would encourage anyone to watch this as a lesson in film acting and as an encouragement to delve further into the play itself.


Looking for Richard starring Al Pacino: A documentary style film about Al Pacino's quest to find the inspiration to play the role of King Richard III.


Lace Market Theatre production photographs by Mark James. Copyright.

1 comment:

Karen said...

I've only seen Ken Branagh in Richard iii, way back in 2002 at The Crucible in Sheffield. It's on at Nottingham Playhouse in October/November so we're going to see it there too. I really wish we'd seen the Anthony Sher version, he's a teriffic actor (& very friendly in real like too) - apparently we saw him at nottingham Playhouse in the early 1970's, but I can't remember him at all.
I'm always amazed that anyone can remember any lines for a play, but especially Shakespeare & when playing multiple parts, & how you cantake on extra parts at very short notice is a mystery to me. But that's why at college I took on back stage roles in Drama, & kept well away from any acting unless it was mime!