Photo by Liz Lauren
A period of protracted political instability brought about by a venal, jaded ruling class has left a nation weakened. An amoral opportunist sees a chance to strike while the iron is hot and seize power for himself. Surrounded by a group of backstabbing cronies whom he’s content to use up and throw away, he’ll stop at nothing to get what he wants. Anyone who can stop him is either senescent, complicit, or doesn’t care enough to bother. Whatever happens, a lot of people are going to die. Sound familiar? It should — it’s the plot of Richard III, which ranks among the most frequently performed plays in the English-speaking world.
Of course, that plot has some unfortunate contemporary relevance, which is likely why it’s currently on the bill at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre in a production directed by the theatre’s new artistic director Edward Hall. This production mercifully eschews easy parallels to the contemporary American political complex, instead preferring to delve into the psychological unraveling of the protagonist, thereby allowing the audience to (ideally) draw its own conclusions about the play’s broader resonance. Unfortunately, the direction is so concept-heavy that it smothers the text, making drawing much of anything out of the production difficult.
One of the classic pitfalls of Shakespeare is saddling the production with a heavy-handed concept that strangles the text rather than illuminating it. Of course, staging these plays — especially one as frequently revived as Richard III — requires a clear vision, but that vision must serve the text. A director must carefully thread the needle between crafting an overly reverent museum piece and a showy, empty exercise in mere cleverness. Hall’s production commits this latter misstep, setting so many challenges in the way of the actors that the entire piece ends up failing to cohere into a satisfying whole.
The production team sets the action in a Victorian hospital that evokes the famous Bedlam asylum. Pre-show, the audience is greeted by a group of white-coated orderlies wearing facemasks reminiscent of dirty bandages. This grisly chorus is a fixture throughout the show, singing eerie songs as they effect scene changes and characters join and leave the play’s action from the group. The effect is evocative of Marat/Sade, and in itself makes a certain amount of sense.
Shakespeare’s histories are difficult to stage for American audiences whose grasp on late medieval British history may be lacking. These plays chart byzantine power struggles and are extremely plot heavy. Even Richard III, which has the benefit of a tightly focused narrative and a protagonist who routinely soliloquizes to let us know what’s about to happen, features dozens of characters and assumes a fair amount of contextual knowledge on the audience’s part. Such a disorienting and estranging approach might be a clever way to elide the necessity of all this historical context by short-circuiting the audience’s logical response in favor of an emotional one. After all, the jockeying for power and internecine conflicts amongst these elite families had very real effects on the people under their governance. I appreciate the attempt to give some weight and meaning to the stakes of a centuries-old political battle, especially as we prepare to enter what’s likely to be the most disastrous American election season in nearly 150 years.
The problem is that the other major inspiration for this R3 seems to be the aesthetics of low-budget horror movies, so it often comes off more as a sophomoric provocation than a thoughtful meditation on power and violence. Yes, seeing Catesby lop off Hastings’ head with a chainsaw as a crimson spray of blood straight out of a giallo film paints the plastic backdrop is visually arresting, but it ultimately feels hollow. Likewise, the murderer Tyrell, whom Richard hires to dispatch the two young princes, is costumed like a nurse from a low-rent haunted house with a blood-stained apron and blank affect, intensified by the choice to cut the few lines allotted the character in the text. Buckingham’s execution is carried out with some sort of rubber entrails waved and tossed hither and yon amidst pained screams. The overall effect is ultimately less creepy than tawdry and unpleasant, which is the predominant feeling that undergirds the whole evening.
The show largely collapses under the weight of this showy, stylized concept. The quality that separates a good Shakespeare production from a bad one is clarity of storytelling, and that clarity depends on the ability of the performers to activate the language. By and large, that fails to happen here. There’s a great deal of yelling and stamping, signifying very little, such that virtually none of the language has any impact either emotionally or poetically. Again, this is a problem that mostly redounds to poor direction, and it means the story is often sluggish and tedious.
What’s most frustrating is that the show does often come close to working. The actors frequently make strong choices, but the show’s uneven pacing saps the power from them. For instance, the two murderers that Richard enlists to dispatch Clarence make a striking entrance that calls to mind a silent-era slapstick team. In particular, Mo Shipley’s Chaplinesque physicality is unsettlingly delightful, wielding a bat like a menacing version of the Tramp’s cane. The scene has electrifying potential but fails to pay off because Hall hangs the actors out to dry by failing to cut the text down. The physicality gets lost in an overly wordy disquisition, and by the time we finally get to the payoff – which features a power drill, no less – the thrill is gone.
Such problems pervade the piece. For a play that’s as action-packed as R3, this production felt slow and oddly sluggish because Hall had the show zig every time it needed to zag, getting close to a breakthrough before ultimately squandering the moment. The dream sequence in Act V, one of the most famous scenes in all of Shakespeare, is a prime example. The night before the climactic Battle of Bosworth, as Richard and the Earl of Richmond sleep, the ghosts of the evil king’s victims appear to curse him for his crimes before wishing Richmond well. In this staging, throughout the play, the orderlies have stuffed the bodies of the dead (or soon to be dead) into vinyl body bags. As the combatants settle down to slumber, the back curtain opens to reveal a row of standing body bags that open themselves to disgorge the ghosts who begin their ghastly parade. But Richard and Richmond are seated on the same platform back-to-back and the ghost-performers are wearing mics so their voices can undergo effects processing, so the entire thing becomes a jumbled mess in which it’s difficult to make out anything and it’s unclear how Richmond is getting a different message than Richard. The stage space is needlessly compressed, bathed in a garish pink and green light that clashes badly, muddling the entire scene and rendering it dramatically inert.
Worse still is the battle itself. Before the fighting begins, the lights come up on the house and Richard and Richmond deliver their rallying speeches to the audience as if we were their assembled supporters. But the moment is staged with very little brio, with both performers circling the stage and declaiming loudly, offering little emotional variation between two speeches that already don’t have much linguistic differentiation. This staging grinds the momentum to a halt. Worse, after they finished, the entire cast runs off, leaving the audience to watch an empty stage with the sound effects of battle simulating the big finale. After all the campy horror-house violence of the preceding two and a half hours, we get to an opportunity for some striking imagery and this is what we get: a bare stage and an audio track. This anticlimax is all the more disappointing given that it’s a missed opportunity to close the show on a strong note.
Despite the misguided direction, the cast features some winning performances. The show’s secret weapon is Yao Dogbe as Buckingham who brings a light touch to both his vocal and physical work that makes it sing. In particular, his attempts to drum up popular support for Richard’s kingship (Act III, Scene 7 as written, here staged just after the intermission) sees him climb one of the steel trusses in a bravura moment. In Debo Balogun’s hands, Ratcliffe is an unctuous little quisling who seems to get a perversely sexual joy out of his gruesome work. Balogun’s use of props, namely a pocket watch and a hacksaw, is wonderfully specific and achieves a disquieting creepiness that much of the show only aspires to. Scott Aiello, one of Chicago’s most reliable actors, is largely wasted here on the lesser roles of Clarence and Stanley but makes the most out of every moment he gets.
Of course, Richard III is only ever going to be as successful as the actor playing the title role. Chicago Shakespeare Theatre has made much of the fact that theirs is the first production of this play to star a woman with a disability, the actor and Paralympian Katy Sullivan. For Shakespeare’s audience, Richard’s disability was almost certainly an index to his unfitness as a ruler, but the play presents him as a series of contradictions. He is evil, yes, but he’s charming, he’s cunning, he’s brave, he’s seductive, he’s funny, and he’s fun. He’s among Shakespeare’s most vivid and memorable characters, and the joy of the role is in the contrast between the dissembling public face he presents to the other characters and the true nature of his plans that he reveals in private to his confidantes and to the audience directly in soliloquies. Sullivan gives a robust performance, but it’s a bit one-note. She doesn’t quite establish contradictory faces for Richard. You wonder why no one listens to Margaret when she tries to warn them about the threat he poses because he’s obviously every bit the devil she sees in him. Sullivan still finds much fun in the character and is a winning presence onstage, but in a production that seems to want to mine Richard’s interiority, the lack of facets to him felt like yet another missed opportunity.
Still, there’s something to be said for an interesting failure rather than a safe success. It was in the role of Richard III that David Garrick first shocked London’s traditionalists and set in motion the long path toward modernism in acting, after all. Given the choice between pear-shaped tones in pumpkin pants and this … well, gimme the chainsaw, Catesby.
Richard III is presented by Chicago Shakespeare Theatre and is now playing at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Avenue, until March 3. Performance times vary; check the website at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.