Richard III at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

Seana McKenna as Richard, Duke of Gloucester

(May 30, 2011) Don’t shy away from seeing Richard III at the Stratford Festival this year for fear that having a woman play the lead role will just be a novelty. Seana McKenna is as fine a Richard as you’ll ever see, a commanding, sometimes terrible presence. This play can seem disjointed, but this production makes it all into a compelling narrative.

Richard III is set in the 1480s, only a little over a hundred years before the play was first presented. Its hero, Richard, Duke of Gloucester bitterly resents everyone around him: his brother King Edward; Elizabeth, the Queen; his other brother Clarence, who stands ahead of him in line for the throne of England; and anyone else who is able to enjoy life the way his own deformed self cannot.

Richard makes up for his defects with cunning, an talent for dissembling, and a preternatural ability to get others to do his bidding.  His undoing is his paranoia and an ever-growing appetite for killing. As Richard, Seana McKenna delivers her lines with clarity, nuance, and depth of meaning, and her Richard is an intelligent, driven personality, a master manipulator with a special relish for irony. This role demonstrates once again why she ranks among the very best classical actors you’re likely ever to see on any stage.

Gareth Potter, as Richmond, dispatches Seana McKenna, as Richard III

There is very little in Ms. McKenna’s appearance to remind the audience that she is a woman. In a loose-fitting coat that hides her figure, makeup that hides her feminine features, and a wig with a bald spot on top, Ms. McKenna looks every bit a man (though not a very tall one). She’s even a credible sword-fighter. Her Richard also has the character’s traditional hunched shoulder and limp (political correctness be damned). Only her voice betrays her, but she exploits its low range well enough to convince audiences that Richard was merely a man with a high voice.

Indeed, it struck us that director Miles Potter purposely chose to downplay the circumstance that a woman was playing Richard.  The casting could, of course, have suggested any number of offbeat interpretations of the character, like the flamboyantly gay Richard that Richard Dreyfuss was called on to play in the movie comedy The Goodbye Girl. But only sparing notice is given to the actor’s gender. At two or three points, the script refers specifically to womanly qualities (as when Buckingham flatters Richard by referring to his “tenderness of heart/And gentle, kind, effeminate remorse” (Act III, Scene 6)); the actors emphasize the key words just enough to convey to the audience the inside joke. At any rate, Ms. McKenna plays Richard as a man, and not even a womanish man. As one might expect from a royal male, her Richard is an effortlessly natural commander of men and women alike. Overall, this was a very traditional Richard III, without transporting the play to a different time period or country, and without unconventional interpretations of characters or scenes — all of which we applaud. The director concentrated on doing Richard III well rather than doing it differently.

True, hearing Richard’s treble voice, our fancy couldn’t help speculating that a hormonal deficiency may have contributed to Richard’s shocking misogyny.  When he confesses to the audience in his opening speech that he wants “love’s majesty/To strut before a wanton ambling nymph” (Act I, Scene 1), is he telling us that his physical deformity extended to his sexual organs?  Did Richard hate women all the more because he was impotent?  Might this account for Richard’s singular determination to confuse, subjugate, humiliate, and drive Lady Anne (Bethany Jillard) to an early grave — Lady Anne, who “never yet one hour in his bed . . . enjoy’d the golden dew of sleep” (Act IV, Scene 1).

There are a lot of characters in Richard III, and although we’ve read the play several times, we still have trouble keeping track of the complicated fourteenth-century family trees of the House of York (Richard’s people) and the House of Lancaster (Richmond’s people). It says something for Shakespeare’s audiences that the playwright could assume that they would know who all these fifteenth-century personages were. Fortunately, one need not know much of it to get the gist of the play. Its interest doesn’t depend on placing the characters in the right faction, but lies instead in the emotional trajectory of Richard’s downfall.

Ms. McKenna is supported by a strong cast, including a remarkable trio of veteran Stratford Festival actresses: Martha Henry as the vindictive Queen Margaret, Roberta Maxwell as Richard’s mother, the Duchess of York, and Yanna McIntosh as the highly political wife of King Edward. We especially enjoyed Nigel Bennett as the badly miscalculating Hastings and Wayne Best as the disappointed Duke of Buckingham. Not so satisfactory, though, was Bethany Jillard’s Lady Anne, who delivered her lines loudly and clearly but with little expression.

When the powers at the Stratford Festival put Richard III in the Tom Patterson Theatre, they may have been afraid that one of Shakespeare’s “history” plays wouldn’t attract enough patrons to fill one of the larger theatres. We think they miscalculated, because this show is bound to have full houses every night by the end of the season, just from word of mouth, as A Winter’s Tale did in 2010. (There were only a handful of empty seats at the early preview performance we saw.) At any rate, we were glad to see Richard III in the Tom Patterson, because we still think there’s no better venue anywhere for Shakespeare.

For ourselves, we wish the history plays were performed more often at Stratford. It’s been too long since Richard II, Henry IV Part 2, and Henry V were done. We have no inside information, but we fearlessly predict that Henry V will be on the Stratford Festival’s menu for 2012, that it will be in the Festival Theatre, and that Ben Carlson will be addressing the troops on St. Crispin’s Day. [Update (6-6-11): We were right: The Stratford Festival announced its 2012 season over the weekend, and they will indeed be doing Henry V in the Festival Theatre. Casting isn’t set yet.] [Further update (11-1-11): We were wrong: Aaron Krohn will play the title role. Carlson will play Fluellen.]

This is the second time we’ve seen a major Shakespearean male character played by a woman; a few years ago another of our favorite actresses, Kelli Fox, who will appear in The Misanthrope at the Stratford Festival later this year, played Hamlet very ably in a production at Geva Theatre here in Rochester, New York several years ago. On this blog Emsworth has carped from time to time about how “nontraditional” casting can distract and detract from a play (here’s what we said about it in connection with the Shaw Festival’s current production of Shaw’s Candida). But ordinarily, when it’s done with Shakespeare, we’re not likely to care one way or the other. Shakespeare’s world was indeed multi-racial, as Othello and The Merchant of Venice show. And we know that in Elizabethan times the female roles were played by men; it’s not much of a stretch for a male role to be played by a woman.

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Jean Racine’s Phèdre at the Stratford Festival

Before we saw Jean Racine’s Phèdre at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival a couple of weeks ago, we thought the play might give us some clues to the lyrics of one of the oddest pop hits of the 1960s.

Nancy and LeeIt was early 1968 when “Some Velvet Morning” was on the radio, a modest top-30 hit for  Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood (whose better-known duet was “Jackson” (“We got married in a fever . . . hotter than a pepper-sprout”)).   The recording begins with Lee singing these lyrics to a slow rock beat:

Some velvet morning when I’m straight
I’m gonna open up your gate
And maybe tell you ’bout Phèdre
and how she gave me life

Abruptly, as if part of a second recording had been spliced in, Nancy begins singing an entirely unrelated melody in a waltz tempo:

Flowers growing on the hill, dragonflies and daffodils
Learn from us very much, look at us but do not touch
Phèdre is my name

Unfortunately, as we learned in Stratford, nothing in Racine’s play sheds any light whatsoever on the apparently drug-induced lyrics of “Some Velvet Morning.”

Jean Racine

Phèdre’s story clearly has staying power. The Phèdre we saw in Stratford was a 2009 translation (by one Timberlake Wertenbaker) of Racine’s 1677 play, which was of course originally written in French, which was a retelling of the story of Phèdre and her stepson Hippolytus in a prize-winning play written by the Greek dramatist Euripides in 428 B.C., which was based on an even older Greek myth. We found the 2009 show in Stratford, which took a little over an hour and a half, without an intermission, strangely compelling.

PhdreThe plot revolves around an unaccountable and dishonorable lust that Phèdre (Seana McKenna), the wife of Greek king Theseus (Tom McCamus), has conceived for her stepson Hippolytus (Jonathan Goad). She confesses her passion first to her old nurse Oenone (Roberta Maxwell), then to her stepson himself. Hippolytus is astonished and appalled; Phèdre becomes suicidal.

Phdre

Roberta Maxwell as Oenone

But Hippolytus has his own issues; he has imprudently fallen in love with Aricia (Claire Lautier), the imprisoned daughter of a king overthrown by Hippolytus’s father Theseus. Theseus had been missing in action for months, and (in the first act) it is reported that he is dead, but to everyone’s surprise, Theseus reappears. At the urging of Oenone, Phèdre lets Oenone tells her husband a pre-emptive lie; she says that Hippolytus tried to rape her.  Hippolytus is reluctant to tell his father the full truth, because that would involve revealing his passion for Aricia, so he does not accuse his stepmother. Theseus impetuously calls upon the god Neptune to punish Hippolytus. 

Phèdre isn’t much like theater we’re used to, from King Lear to The Cherry Orchard to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Still, it’s not as dramatically different from them as our first experience with ancient Greek drama a year ago, which left Emsworth so bemused that he never did post his thoughts on the Stratford Festival’s production of another play by Euripedes, The Trojan Women (written 415 B.C.). The Trojan Women consisted mostly of woe-is-us speeches by the women of Troy after the Greeks had burned their city and slaughtered their husbands, and it struck us as practically a different art form from European and American plays over the last 400 years.

Racine’s Phèdre has much more of what would strike us as a conventional story line than The Trojan Women. But it’s still a very different sort of drama. We’re used to reasonably realistic dialogue. But in Phèdre the characters don’t so much converse as make speeches to one another. And the characters simply aren’t people like us. We are made to understood that these characters — who are direct descendants of gods! — have passions and dreams that are far more intense, more noble (or ignoble), and more tragic than anything we could possibly experience. We can’t identify with them on a human level as we can, for example, with another semi-mythological member of royalty, Shakespeare’s Lear.

Phdre

Hippolytus (Jonathan Goad) and Théramène (Sean Arbuckle)

We thought the very finest performances in this show were by Roberta Maxwell, as Phèdre’s subtle, Machievellian nurse Oenone, and by Sean Arbuckle, as Hippolytus’s tutor and friend, Théramène. Arbuckle’s long, riveting narrative of the dramatic death by Hippolytus made us feel that we’d actually seen the monster rising from the sea to terrify Hippolytus’s horses.

We were less enamoured of the performance of Jonathan Goad, whose face bore the same smirk throughout the play, and who, especially in his late speeches, had an annoying tendency to pause, for no particular reason, two or three words into each sentence.

Other posts from Emsworth about shows in the Stratford Festival’s 2009 season:

The Scottish play, set in Africa! Shakespeare’s Macbeth at this post.

Anton Chekhov’s wonderful The Three Sisters (see this post)

The hilarious musical comedy A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at this post

The Ben Jonson play Bartholomew Fair (see this post)

Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (see this post)

The folly of suggesting that Shakespeare should be “translated” for modern audiences (see this post)

The marvelous quarrels in Julius Caesar and The Importance of Being Earnest (see this post)

Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (see this post)

What P. G. Wodehouse owes to Oscar Wilde (see this post)

The musical West Side Story (see this post)