For only the price of a new PlayStation or a month’s rent, you and a friend can see Shakespeare done any number of debatably interesting ways this season on Broadway and elsewhere. Do you want to see a visually stylish director bend A Midsummer Night’s Dream to her will? Do you want to see a cutting-edge, avant-garde, all-female production of Julius Caesar? Do you want to see an “original practice” take on either a beloved comedy or a particularly tricky history?
For reasons of availability and preference, I chose the last of these options and hope to make my way to the others soon. I have a few English friends who have expressed to me the opinion that I simply hadn’t seen Shakespeare until I’d seen it done by the players of the Globe, and here they were on Broadway recreating, insofar as such a thing is possible, a 16th century staging of Richard III, down to the dancing of a very serious jig at the end. How interesting is it to see the show filtered through the medium of “original practice”? Well, it depends on what you mean by “interesting.” Nuances in Richard III are suddenly obvious that had never been clear (to me) before. But you have to go the long way around to get to them; on some level, it looks like a parody of every tights-and-codpieces stereotype of Bardic production.
So don’t look at the stills; just go to the theater. In person, the level of achievement on display in Richard III (running in rep with Twelfth Night through Feb. 2 at Broadway’s Belasco Theatre), particularly in the set and costumes designed by Jenny Tiramani, is utterly virtuosic. They’re stunning. I’ve read plenty of material on the original settings of these plays and seen what woodcuts survive, and the design here is the real-life equivalent of watching a perfectly-preserved print of your favorite movie for the very first time. They speak eloquently of the theater of 400 years ago.
They’re less flattering to the theater of 2013 because, let’s face it, hiring stunningly gifted foreign artisans to recreate the theater of feudal England for an audience composed entirely of the richest people in the richest city in the richest nation in the world is the kind of deeply weird, Neroid, Vegas-with-taste thing that seems to have taken over the American stage like colony collapse disorder. But unlike, say, spending $40 million to turn a hit movie into a musical, it also enables several of the greatest actors alive to penetrate a difficult and rewarding play.
Mark Rylance plays Richard. He is wonderful. Beyond wonderful, really — he’s charming in a goofy, shy, happy way that makes you want to leave your kids with him, and he manages to sell not merely the until-now strangely gullible Anne (Joseph Timms) on his protestations of love over the corpse of her husband (whom he murdered), but a few of us in the audience, too. His performance is so good, in fact, it makes me realize what I’ve always wanted to see in Richard and never before have: a man who’s charming not in the louche, confident way a handsome actor always is, but the kind of coruscating, harmless, furious charm of those unhappy souls who are both tremendously charismatic and desperately ugly. And you can love Rylance’s Richard. You might even want to be his friend and assure him that he’s a beautiful person inside, never mind about his hunch or his hideous, shriveled hand. Of course, Richard is not beautiful on the inside, but again, Rylance finds the right texture to that rotten inner life: this character doesn’t pull the wings off flies like a tittering psychopath, he lashes out in bitter resentment, lovingly nursed over who knows how many years. This season, there’s a lot of very wise complaining about the number of Shakespeare productions littering stages that might be better-served by the presence of young playwrights; at a difficult time to do so, the Globe justifies its presence, and even its expense.
The first half of Richard III has always seemed very hard to me. It ought to be fascinating — Richard tricks all the people in his way and murders them! — but in practice it always seems long, forced and filled with political nonsense I have never understood. I understand it, or at least part of it, now. Richard III is about the redemption of England from its tyrant ruler, and that, at least, finally comes through clearly enough that I can take it in — Clarence’s nightmare speech, in particular (as performed by an incredible Ian Brennan), brings out the notion of how bad it is that Richard will ascend the throne.
I do wonder, though, how much of this you could strip away and still have a fascinating, wonderful production of a play that gets too easily dismissed because of its difficulty. Fifteenth-century English politics are kind of a hard sell; Rylance, surely, is not. As noted, he’s not the only superb actor on stage, either — Angus Wright, for example, plays a Buckingham so suave and confident that when Richard strokes his cheek and says, “Ah! My other self!” the line reveals everything about Richard. And when Richard turns on Buckingham in the second half of the play, it’s not simply the Hannibal Lecterishness we’ve seen in other interpretations — it’s that Buckingham’s dashing good looks have become a thorn in Richard’s side and a constant reminder of his own ugliness. Everything, in fact, reminds Rylance’s Richard of his own ugliness; the whole of England becomes a mirror that gives him a hateful eyeful anytime he looks at it, and the only way to get rid of those things that emphasize his deformity is, of course, to kill them. Richard is good at murdering, bad at ruling.
Does the live period music help with this? Not particularly. Does the scrupulously recreated set? It’s pretty, but no. The costumes, particularly Richard’s, are integral to the staging, but other than that, this could be done anywhere, with these wonderful actors and astonishingly lucid direction by Tim Carroll, who knows exactly where to send his performers’ lines. “Woe, woe for England, and not a whit for me!” Paul Chahidi tells the audience as he’s about to be executed; Richmond, too (Kurt Egyiawan), takes the part of the audience after Richard has abandoned us. But perhaps the best insight — and, in true critical fashion, I can only tell you whose decision I think this was, namely Carroll’s — comes after Richard has been crowned and has clearly lost his ever-hating mind: he tells Catesby (you may be tired of hearing how great these actors are, but I’m not tired of telling you: Peter Hamilton Dyer is wonderful) that he’s going to tell everyone Anne’s sick and then have her killed…while she’s standing next to him. When he explains his reasoning, he does so to her:
“I must be married to my brother’s daughter,/Or else my kingdom stands on brittle glass,” he explains, apologetically. “Murder her brothers, and then marry her!/Uncertain way of gain! But I am in/ So far in blood that sin will pluck on sin:/Tear-falling pity dwells not in this eye.”
This is wonderful, and I wish there was a way to lay it bare. But the art here seems to emerge from the artifice; the incredibly precise acting and directing work emerge from the mania for detail that encases it in amber. Is it the best way to perform Shakespeare really to do it in a de facto museum? Maybe not, but so many have such trouble finding the nuances in the author’s characters in reinterpretations that this Richard III is instructive in the best possible sense. The question of Shakespeare, especially Shakespearean tragedy and history, to most of today’s directors and producers seems to have been how to contemporize, sex up and generally plead for the Bard. In this production, the Globe argues very successfully that the best way to bring Richard III to the people is to make the theater into a time machine. Other interpreters can doubtless find ways forward from this kind of fanaticism, but fanaticism may be the only true place to start.