July 9. 2010 performance reviewed by Frances Benn Hall.
He’s done it again! John Douglas Thompson has once again, at his early age, created a role that only enhances his reputation as one of the greatest actors of Shakespeare in modern times (easily vying with Gielgud and Olivier) but outstripping them. His performanc in the role of Richard III at Shakespeare and Co., under the insightful direction of Jonathan Croy, brings to the stage the most original and mercurial character of Richard that will for many in the audience be long remembered as a touch-stone with which to compare any Richards they may see in the future.
The play is the most popular of Shakespeare’s histories and the playing of the lead character, a villain to outdo all villains, even Shakespeare’s own, brings engaging challenges.
I have over many years pursued Richard wherever I could find him; travelling to Shakespeare theatres at Stratford, Connecticut as well as that on the Avon River in England, and in Stratford, Ontario. No Richard, for me, has ever moved me to such depths of admiration. This is personal and strong praise, and this production and its star-studded cast will draw praise from critics far more astute than I. Be assured that it deserves their approval.
I advise you to go a bit early and read the note on fugal form in the program which will inform you that this take on Richard and the whole play is a unique one. You then will not wonder (and later marvel) as the first act proceeds, to see how Richard cloaks his hostility and ambition in what seems an over-playing of an almost stock character buffoon, that at times is hilarious, cloaking the intentions that lie beneath it.
Much of the first act evokes laughter, high paced activity that even rises to the point of audience participation in shenanigans and much racing up and down aisles. One wonders how can this play, this Richard lll, reach its intended end – one foreseen in the opening lines of the play because of where the character plays them.
After a danced introduction to the play as a whole, the stage empties and the slumped figure of Richard, who has lain there—down stage center—rolls over and lying there faces the audience with those famous opening lines: “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York.” His lines not only dismissing the dancers and gaiety but his own bitterness toward the brother who sits on the throne that he yearns for.
The stage position also affirms the one that we, the audience, know he will occupy, defeated and dying at the play’s end – lying again down stage center. This seemingly small bit of direction, makes possible what at times seems impossible, the arc that Richard will carve through the play to reach that ending. One in which we feel pity and a strange compassion for a bitter, crippled, unloved man who at least had feelings for England if none for anyone else.
The magical side of the staging and acting of this play includes in the first act scenes of serious dramatic intensity involving those who living in an England where finally the last rose of the “war of the roses” has been picked, but an England in which Shakespeare brings to his stage The Women.
Although the play has been streamlined, the strong group of women who bring their bitterness into the present, have been played with dramatic intensity. These roles too are ones women actors vie for. Here they are played with bitter brilliance. They have lost sons and the sons of sons to the wars. They have fought more than women of their day often could fight for the crown for a husband, a son, even in the case of mad Margaret, for the throne itself. They have all lost and will lose again. But their voices are loud in condemning their abuse and grievances.
Most outstanding is Elizabeth Ingram as mad Margaret, aged widow of the dead Henry VI from whom the throne, which even she tried to personally climb, has been filled by the weak Edward. Ingram not only speaks beautifully but she sweeps onto the stage with commanding presence, making all before her quail and retreat. (Shakespeare was cavalier with time and adds Margaret to his cast although she was long dead by the time the events in the play occur. However she adds significant power to the themes of women and children sacrificed to the struggles for the throne of England.)
Annette Miller, mother of the weak ruling son Edward who occupies the throne in the troubled aftermath of the end of the York/Lancaster struggles, is also imposing. She is also mother of the doomed Clarence, and of the physically repulsive, even to her, crippled Richard. As mother and grandmother to a host of others, she brings her concerns for family onto the stage with a defiance of her own.
As Elizabeth, wife of the reigning queen, but with children not only from her current marriage, children who will die in the tower (the little princes who break our hearts) but children from a previous marriage, Tod Randolph has more involved plot agenda. Her best scene, one demanding greatest skills is in Act 2 when Richard forces her into sacrificing her daughter Elizabeth to be his wife. (In act one Richard has wooed and seemingly impossibly won a wife beside the corpse of her dead father-in-law; by act 2 he has not only married her, slept with her (to her disgust) but had her conveniently killed.
But women are not the only ones threading their moving and dramatic scenes through Act one. There is Clarence, Richard’s betrayed brother and the scene of his death manages to intermingle deep tragic intensity with grim humor. Rocco Sisto is compelling in the role. His rendering of the famous “Methought what pains it was to drown” brings tears to the eyes. And is immediately shattered by the botched humor of the two clowns who have been hired to kill him and do so.
This play is studded with theatrical talent: Jason Asprey as Stanley (and several other characters). Johnny Lee Davenport as the ineffective King Edward but slipping boisterously into that of the Mayor and other roles. Nigel Gore, Buckingham, loyal to the end, though betrayed by Richard at last.
And bestriding all, John Douglas Thompson, an actor who cares so deeply for the characters he plays that he invests them with a kind of gold that I find it hard to describe. The theatrical journey he makes from his first supine bent body to his lying dying at the end of Richard’s journey, is an amazing one to have made. And he makes us believe in it all the way. The physical and vocal and emotional skills demanded of the actor, literally handicapped by lame leg and hunched back, are beyond those usually demanded of an actor.
Everyone connected with this production deserves praise. Everyone who admires great theatre should see it. Whatever conception you have of Richard, you will carry the memory of this production with you for a long time.
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