“If you turn on the news what do you see?” asks Samantha Reading, director of the People’s Light and Theatre Company’s Richard III. “Politicians manipulate the public to gain power [...] resources have been stripped bare, buildings crumble, land decays, violence, and murder, have become ordinary. Death is ubiquitous. This often seems to be the world around us. This is the world of Richard III. It is grim, yet we engage.” Her production embodies this view of recurring social tragedy, a grimly engaging take on the ruthless people so intent on their goals that they cannot see they are fighting for an already shattered world.
Jorge Cousineau’s outstanding set immediately realizes this impression with its sprawling multi-level design that nevertheless evokes the claustrophobia of decay. Soaring windows on either side of the main stage are set with dirty clouded glass and covered in graffiti. The stone stairways and platform stage left are poorly lit, with a decorative pool of water almost indistinguishable from a gutter and nearly invisible to the audience, and exits disappearing into dark alleys or down mysterious stairs. The balcony is little more than a fire escape or construction gantry, reachable only by a broken metal ladder and the enormous pile of junk that covers the back of the stage. Shadows pool no matter how bright the lighting (by designer Maria Shaplin, ebbing and flowing with the play’s tension) and the swirls of fog enhance the ominous mood.
Costume designer Rosemarie McKelvey leaves the exact setting deliberately ambiguous, implicating multiple historical eras in the cycle of social unrest. Richard wears modern black fatigues, combat boots, and leg brace, but his leather jacket is cut in the manner of a Renaissance doublet, and his primary crutch incorporates a leather gauntlet for his withered arm and a leather harness straight out of Mad Max: Fury Road. Buckingham’s jacket and fatigues align with Richard’s, while other members of the court, like Hastings and Stanley or the two princes, don old-fashioned trousers and waistcoats. Queens, former and current, wear black gowns with sheer sleeves and architectural embellishments, like the interweaving straps (lined with the cerulean that denotes her family and allies) on Elizabeth’s chest, or Margaret’s stiff floor-length vest. Meanwhile, Anne pairs modern wedged ankle boots with a knee-length black coat-dress lined in a striking red, which sports Victorian-inspired mutton chop sleeves and bustle-like pleats. Despite the variety of influences, however, one feature is constant: no matter how well-off the wearer, all of the costumes are worn, ripped, scuffed, and splattered in mud, subject to the same decay as the kingdom.
The cast is relatively small, and their juggling of multiple roles is nicely accomplished. The company updates Shakespearean casting practices with several roles played by actors of the opposite gender, such as Margaret Ivey (Anne) as Young Edward, or Peter DeLaurier (Hastings) as the Duchess of York. The double-casting reinforces the production’s cyclical emphasis, as familiar faces reappear on the entire spectrum of conflict: Alda Cortese goes from the fallen but potent Queen Margaret to the current but failing King Edward to the easily-led Mayor of London; Carl Clemons-Hopkins begins the production as the Queen’s brother Rivers, defects to serve Richard faithfully as Catesby, and reappears in the final scenes as his nemesis Richmond.
The double-casting also serves to illustrate Richard’s singular nature: as played by Pete Pryor, he is the only character who does not share a face with someone else. Pryor gives an excellent performance, energetic and unpredictable but never excessive. Apart from exposing an alarming-looking skin condition when Richard accuses Hastings of witchcraft, his disabilities are not sensationalized, neither as a cause nor an outward manifestation of his villainy. Pryor shows Richard struggling with but powering through the limitations of his limbs with the same energy and determination he confronts his opponents with on his way to the throne. He is probably the character who most roams over the whole stage, and Pryor casually proclaims his ownership of it as he leaps down from platforms or rests on rusting fixtures. Richard’s favorite entrance is deftly clambering down the pile of junk from the balcony, descending from on high to resume his scheming, announcing his presence with the gong-like blows of his crutch to the discarded metal refuse. Pryor maintains Richard’s drive to the end of the play. His hold on his temper begins to fray — as he erupts in fury at his remaining allies and assaults Elizabeth with a very unwanted kiss for her daughter — but never his hold on his sanity or ambition.
Reading keeps the play moving at a relentless pace, and takes full advantage of the set’s expanse (though with a few problems in blocking when the set obscures characters). The play begins in extreme medias res, with Richard’s final fight and wordless death at the hands of Richmond; he is then hoisted into the air by one leg and left to hang in indignity. But as he is lowered, Pryor begins “Now is the winter of our discontent” into one of Reading’s and sound/set/video designer Cousineau’s innovations: the camera on Richard’s gauntlet. At key moments of the play, Richard delivers his soliloquies and asides into this Shakespearean selfie stick, which broadcasts his extreme closeup in grainy projections on the windows on either side of the stage — or, in a nicely chilling version of Act 5.3, the extreme closeups of his many victims, who hijack the feed to invade his dreams. It’s an intriguing riff on social media, for Richard is not sharing these videos with his friends or followers; the audience in the house is a passive witness. The nature of the play is so cyclical that Richard is essentially talking to himself. When the end of the play comes around again, the camera reprises its role as Richard is dangled aloft; this time, though, it only broadcasts his lifeless face as Richmond pronounces his final speech of victory — which excludes the more hopeful results of the conflict, like his impending union to the House of York through the princess Elizabeth. Richard was already dead at the beginning of the play; he just didn’t know it yet. All that has been accomplished is the set up for another cycle of violence without him.
However, his image still lingers. Reading notes that “Richard III throws light on our dark impulses. And, in knowing Richard, I know myself.” Ultimately, the People’s Light and Theatre Company’s excellent production of Richard III stands as one of the ways to counteract the violence and decay it portrays: to get in close and broadcast it to the world.