For its inaugural season last year, Shakespeare in the Ruff presented Shakespeare’s shortest play, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, with a rewritten ending. Clearly the company enjoys covering all bases, as this year they went for Shakespeare’s second-longest work, Richard III. Given the outdoor setting and the inconvenient fact that the sun will insist on going down, the text has been cut to about 100 minutes, paring down the whole to a play almost as lean as its leading man.
Directed by luminary Diane D’Aquila, a mainstay of the Stratford Festival, this Richard takes place in the be-suited, Blackberry-wielding corridors of modern-day power, leading inexorably to the thought that an excellent production could be set in the Canadian Liberal party of the early 21st century. As it is, the production could take place anywhere that jackets and ties are the political elite’s uniform of choice.
Despite the amount of blood that’s spilled in Richard III – death for death, more people are shuffled off here than in Hamlet – it is a very funny play; Richard himself has always been popular with audiences for his unashamed, almost pantomimic glee in his own evil, and D’Aquila chooses to go full-out for laughs. Alex McCooeye is virtually a clown as Richard, unabashedly winking at the audience and literally tooting his own horn – or at least, singing out the trumpet-blasts that the script calls for to introduce him. With impressive physical command over his practically double-jointed frame, he is adept at switching to the persuasive roles he plays to the other characters, and particularly convincing in his offense at the Queen, while also being marvellously blatant in his hypocrisy when need be. Possibly the funniest moment comes when he is pretending to be at his devotions and Buckingham yells ‘Plantagenet!’ at him. For a priceless moment, he pretends to believe he is hearing the voice of God. The humour is often, however, much darker, never more so than when, having promised to bury Henry VI’s ashes, he pours them out at the foot of a tree with a grin. This moment encapsulates the madcap satire D’Aquila has gone for: realising that much of the plot is quite over-the-top, she chooses to push it a little bit further, until it stands firmly as an all-too-recognisable satire of how politics work. Buckingham, Catesby and Richard eating the Bishop of Ely’s strawberries over the bucket containing Hastings’s head sums it up nicely, as does the fact that the large poster of Richard doesn’t look a thing like him. Though the cuts sometimes make us lose the extent of the backstabbing that goes on – Hastings in particular loses the entirety of his backstory – the general thrust is clear.
Yet these cuts are offset by strange moments which may be questioned. For instance, while Stanley’s premonitory dream and his warnings to Hastings are lost, we nevertheless get Hastings, when summoned to the Council, giving us the Porter’s scene from Macbeth. Clearly some time needed to be filled to get Simon Bracken from the back of the park, where he was changing into his rather lovely dressing gown, back to the main stage: but though the parallel might seem appropriate, as Hastings is about to go through Hellgate himself, one is left wondering how cutting Stanley’s scene can be justified if there is time for a bit of another play to be performed.
Beyond McCooeye, the very small cast adapts to a multitude of roles with varying results. This is particularly the case with Charlie Gould, who on the one hand plays Anne, seduced by Richard into becoming his wife, and on the other the Duke of York, Richard’s younger nephew. As Anne, Gould is less than convincing: she shouts rather than speaks, and talks so quickly that it is almost impossible to work out when or how she is seduced. (Her sneakers don’t help.) She redeems herself somewhat when she is seated on her throne listening to Richard order his nephews’ death, and then her own. Her slowly-dropping jaw is wonderful. But Gould is infinitely superior as one of those nephews, the Duke of York; convincingly on the verge of adolescence, with that cheekiness that may or may not be spite, her performance here upstages even the imitations of a monkey, which are rather good as well.
Both nephews are played by women: Edward V is in fact played by his mother, which could lead to all sorts of philosophical ramifications we won’t get into. Jacklyn Francis does well as both; I am particularly impressed with her Elizabeth, who is clearly at the end of her tether from the beginning. There is a tendency in modern productions to show her as little more than a victim, suffering from the snobbery of those who believe she has married far above her station; while this is present here, Francis’s performance also makes it deeply credible that others might conceive a personal hatred for her. Simply put, this Elizabeth is not especially nice. Francis also plays the scene where Richard proposes himself as husband to her daughter extremely well, combining fear and repulsion with a desperate need for safety that leads her to almost acquiesce to being raped on stage. Or at least kissed so roughly that it might as well be a rape – the staging is not completely unambiguous on what occurs at this point.
David Ross is a wonderfully apoplectic Edward IV, but unfortunately that King’s main characteristic carries over into his other roles. Though it is possible to distinguish Rivers, the Mayor and Stanley from one another, it is impossible to forget that they are the same actor; and one is left wishing that all these people would just stop bellowing. Still, he is not ineffective, and his General Monty-like bluffness is particularly appropriate for Stanley.
One has to congratulate Shakespeare in the Ruff for having found a redhead to play the first of the Tudors, Richmond, and it is particularly appropriate that this one pious character should also play the Bishop of Ely. It is equally interesting, therefore, that he plays the murderer who develops a conscience during Clarence’s death. Brendan McMurty-Howlett makes a very slick and rousing Richmond, which is really all one can ask for with that blancmange of a character.
The remaining members of the cast are on much the same level. Jesse Griffiths does an excellent job drowning as Clarence (and is to be commended for putting himself at risk of genuine drowning for our sake, when his head is shoved into a bucket that actually does contain water), though he tries to take too many words on a single breath in his big monologue. Marc Bondy is a superbly oily Buckingham, the epitome of the backroom boy, and Simon Bracken is a delightfully self-satisfied Hastings, as well as a rather good murderer.
I was however somewhat disconcerted by Diane D’Aquila’s presence on the stage as Richard’s mother, the Duchess of York. Certainly, there is no problem with a director having a role in a play, but given the variety of cuts in this production, the Duchess of York emerges as a much bigger role than she actually is in the text. This in itself is not necessarily an issue; but Shakespeare in the Ruff presents itself as a young company of up-and-coming actors, and it therefore raises eyebrows when the single most memorable moment comes from the hugely-renowned veteran who not only directed the play but specifically mentions in the press release that she sought out the company to do so.
None of this presents on stage; certainly, there is no sense that now the True Professional will come on stage and show the young ’uns how to do things. But when D’Aquila stares McCooeye in the eye and begins to curse him, the sheer power of her performance makes it impossible not to reflect (afterwards, of course – it is too impressive to think while it is occurring) that there is a difference in level here. The Duchess’s curse is a stunning display of sheer technique, particularly of how to project in the open without yelling (certain other cast members could certainly learn from this). It is possible that the chills I got were due to the breeze, which was cool by that point, but however that may be, it was the moment that truly lodged in my mind – and I would not have the moment otherwise: the Duchess’s curse is one of the key moments of the play. It is the only time that a character manages to truly stand up to Richard and speak in the name of all the others in that world, and for that matter for the audience as well; and it is all the more powerful in coming from his mother, who is the one person it is possible to show Richard as hoping for caring from. It should give shivers, and I am glad that it did. But I am left wondering about the company’s vision for itself.
Two other large problems present after this, one much less serious than the other. Firstly, the ghost scene is severely cut. Though well-staged, with the ghosts emerging all at once from the hillock at the back of the scene and marching through the audience – it’s astonishing how effective the old flashlight-under-the-chin effect is – at this point there is a sense of wanting to get things over with. Given that aside from the Duchess, Richard and Richmond are the only actors not to have been killed in some role or another by this moment, one can understand the practicalities of needing to get the ghosts into their next costumes as quickly as possible, not to mention the inherent difficulty in having one actress (Gould) portraying two major victims. But given the marching, it is almost impossible to hear what exactly is said, or for those who don’t know the play to work out what’s going on; the encouragement to Richmond is particularly lost, given that the ghosts are halfway up the audience by that point and nowhere near the slumbering Richmond. Possibly the company found it difficult to incorporate what should be a spine-tingling scene into a production that until now had mostly been played for dark laughter – and to be sure, ghosts are difficult in an age when they are no longer believed in, particularly in a play when until their appearance, only a little before the end, there is no indication that the supernatural exists in this world. I am, however, willing to admit that this may just be my taste for a good ghost scene talking.
More seriously, Richard’s final monologue is flubbed. To be fair, this is one of Shakespeare’s most difficult soliloquies. It is arguably his first truly introspective piece, his first attempt to have a character display genuine interiority, which is a great alteration from the endlessly superficial Richard of the rest of the play; all of a sudden, Richard discovers that he has something vaguely resembling a conscience, something that a simple ‘villain’ such as he was determined to prove to be is unacquainted with. But it is clearly a beginner’s effort; the wright’s joins still show. It is choppy, overly simple in its contrasts (the equivalent of the movie cliché of a schizophrenic talking to himself in the mirror), and entirely different from what the role of Richard has required up till now. It is not, therefore, easy to pull off.
But though he improves over its course, McCooeye fails to pull it off; for the first half, in particular, possibly due to an attempt to project true interiority by not overplaying the dramatic dialogue, there is no sense of drama; it seems recited rather than performed, and the dramatic twists and turns, over-obvious though they are in the light of Shakespeare’s later work (think Brutus, think Hamlet, think Angelo), are lost in a single-toned line of sameness. There are many ways of playing this monologue – as a revelation of what’s always been behind the mask, as a confused discovery of what Richard was unaware he felt – but given the overall clownishness of McCooeye’s performance, some break with his manic persona is required; the only break we get is quietness.
Luckily, the final battle scene is well-staged enough to make us forgive this. Bryan Steele’s wonderful lighting keeps up the audience’s interest on its own, and the slow progress of the anti-Ricardian forces, sneaking up on him through the audience, the laser sights of their guns moving around him, is very effective. So is McCooeye’s delivery of ‘My kingdom for a horse!’ At first a bellow that for the last time draws laughter from the audience, the quiet, eye-rolling resignation he displays as no fewer than six laser sights find him is marvelous.
So is the fact that, just as we think Richard is about to be laid low by a volley shot from within the audience, Richmond suddenly charges him from behind and stabs him in the back. Leaving aside the over-obviousness of backstabbing in so politically-charged a production, it is a nice acknowledgment of Richmond’s less-than-clear right to the throne, and gives credence to the hint Richard gives that Richmond has filled the battlefield with body doubles to keep himself safe. As Richmond is handed a gun, there is a moment of uncertainty for the audience: in the end, it seems clear that this is for the photo-op, but as he takes it, one cannot only wonder whether we are about to be made to cheer for him at gun-point. It is both unexpected and slightly chilling.
The cast are to be congratulated for their ability to play in so public a park. Leaving aside the screaming children at the start, which merely left one longing for Richard to get on with the murder of his nephews, and the hockey game in the background of the second half, their ability to work in unexpected noises is brilliant – never more so than when a low-flying plane (or possibly helicopter) passed overhead just as Richard was receiving his endless bad news, and McCooeye’s Richard was suddenly riveted with terror that it might be coming for him. As mentioned, Bryan Steele’s lighting is especially good, transforming the grove that serves as stage into an appropriately murky yet detailed world. The green lighting when Richard is finally captured by soldiers who may be presumed to be wearing night-vision goggles is a particularly nice touch. Andrew Joseph Richardson’s turn as the ghost of Henry VI at the start, explaining the background in a bit too much detail, is also well-done, and its pastiche of the prologue to Henry V well-written. I particularly like ‘Think you, when you see us talking on cellphones, that you may not’.
All in all, despite my moans and groans, this is a fine and fun production - it is well-worth seeing.