Richard III at Shakespeare and Company in Lenox, Mass.

John Douglas Thompson as Richard III

In a spirit of branching out, Emsworth and the Cordelia of his three daughters devoted a day to driving east to Lenox, Massachusetts to see a summer repertory company called Shakespeare and Company put on The Life and Death of King Richard III. This was a new theater destination for us; on the strength of this show, we feel strongly that these folks ought to be encouraged.

We saw Richard III in a relatively small, low-tech space (in the “Founders’ Theatre”) constructed mostly out of risers and black drapes, and sat in what might have been old church pews. But the acting, we thought, was top-notch — as good, in general, as we’ve come to expect in Niagara-on-the-Lake or Stratford.

The Founders' Theatre, with the "Rose Footprint" theater (the tent) to the right, down a hill

Richard III is the story of misanthrope Richard, Duke of Gloucester (John Douglas Thompson), who hates the world because his brother Edward, not he, is King of England, and because his physical deformities leave him unappealing to women. In two early monologues (including the play’s famous opening, “Now is the winter of our discontent . . . “), Richard boasts about his schemes to have his brother George, Duke of Clarence, put to death, and to marry a woman whose husband and father he has killed.

John Douglas Thompson, as Richard III, shamelessly urges Leia Espericueta, as Lady Anne, Warwick's youngest daughter, to marry him

Before it’s over, and as Richard murders and manipulates his way onto the throne of England, he tallies more victims than Jason in Friday the 13th. But the shock value in this show came, not so much from the death toll, but from the sheer inventiveness of Richard’s perversity. The nervous laughter from the audience when Richard cheerfully told us

I’ll marry Warwick’s youngest daughter.
What though I kill’d her husband and her father?

was just the beginning. Jaws dropped when Richard gave orders to have his brother Clarence and then his two nephews murdered. There were gasps at Richard’s cynical pretext for sending Hastings to the chopping block, and more when he kicked Hastings’s head (in a sack) around the stage.

Elizabeth Ingram as the ghostly Margaret and Nigel Gore as the Duke of Buckingham

In fact, two of the most shocking moments in the play (as we feel sure the playwright intended) didn’t even involve bloodshed and murder. We held our breath when (in Act IV, scene 2) the newly crowned Richard coolly snubbed Buckingham, his most faithful ally (Nigel Gore), when Buckingham reminded him that he’d been promised the earldom of Hereford. (“I am not in the giving vein to-day.”) And when Richard concluded his audacious request that Elizabeth (Tod Randolph) persuade her young daughter to become his next wife (Act IV, scene 4) by giving Elizabeth a sensual kiss, we felt it as a blow.

From reading the play – till now we hadn’t seen Richard III on stage – we didn’t expect much humor, if any, in the show. But director Jonathan Croy made a highly effective comic episode (Act I, scene 4) out of the efforts of Richard’s bungling hired assassins to screw up their courage to murder Clarence. He did the same with an exhilarating Baynard’s Castle scene (Act III, scene 7) in which Josh Aaron McCabe, as Catesby, an exuberant Johnny Lee Davenport, as the Lord Mayor, and Nigel Gore, as Buckingham, brilliantly manipulated a mob (and the audience in the theater, appalled but laughing) into acclaiming Richard as their new king. The scene seemed to us the reverse image of Antony’s celebrated speech to the Romans in Julius Caesar. It was great theater.

This Richard III came dangerously close to camp – but that’s what pulled the parts of this play together, we thought. Three weeks earlier, in Stratford, Ontario (see this post), we had seen another early Shakespeare play, Two Gentlemen of Verona, presented (and very effectively) more as scenes from a variety show — an entertainment — than as a narrative play. In the same way, this production of Richard III, was more a pageant of scenes from Richard’s outrageous career – melodramatic confrontations, comic episodes, a lament, non-naturalistic speeches to the audience, a battle scene — than a unified narrative.  (Is there any other Shakespeare play in which so many characters go out of their way to give their names as part of their first speeches?)  We felt that the approach brought us close to what a London audience in 1590 might have experienced.

Leia Espericueta, Zoë Laiz, and Tod Randolph as Lady Anne, Young Elizabeth, and Queen Elizabeth

We’ve read that the roles of the women in Richard III are not truly playable. That wasn’t the case here; the dazzling repartee between Richard and Anne (Leia Espericueta) in Act I, scene 2, the blistering curses of Margaret (Elizabeth Ingram) in Act I, scene 3, and the verbal fireworks between Richard and Elizabeth (Tod Randolph) in Act IV, scene 4 were all highlights.

All told, this was a lively, tightly directed show with a strong cast. Rocco Sisto, as Clarence, gave a mesmerizing rendition of Clarence’s celebrated dream about his drowning and adventures in Hades. On the printed page the various dukes and nobleman seem undifferentiated, but in this show they all had strongly individual personalities; we especially enjoyed Nigel Gore as Buckingham. The choice of John Douglas Thompson as Richard III was a case of non-traditional casting, not because Mr. Thompson is a black man, a matter of no consequence, but because, with his tall figure, agility, and imposing physical presence, he did not look at all like the deformed, undersized cripple that the playwright made Richard out to be. It was a small point to sacrifice, as Mr. Thompson was an extraordinarily convincing Richard.

Shakespeare and Company operates on the campus of the Lenox School, a private prep school situated out in the country in the Berkshires

Shakespeare and Company seems to have been around for 33 years — some friends who used to live in Stockbridge told us they saw Shakespeare from this group in an outdoor theater in the late 1970s — but the group is still a long ways from reaching the critical mass of established repertory companies like the Shaw Festival, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, or the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. It sells only about 50,000 tickets each year, compared to about 500,000 at Stratford. Shows like The Winter’s Tale, which was also on the bill this year, have 25 performances compared to the 100 or more that the Shaw Festival might have for a play like Major Barbara.

Shakespeare and Company also seems to have ambitions that aren’t close to fruition. One of its three “theaters,” the “Rose Footprint Theatre,” is just a tent in a field that’s apparently used for shows for kids. The season publication says it’s the spot where they intend (when they get the money) to build an historically accurate reproduction of the Rose Playhouse, the London theater where Richard III may have been first performed.

We must complain about the the program for this show, in which the cast of characters confusingly had the actors on the left and the characters on the right. Needless to say, this makes it hard to sneak a glance, in the middle of the performance, to see who’s playing what.

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