Richard III at the BAM Harvey Theater

We’ll probably never have a chance like this again. Within the space of a year and a half we were so fortunate as to catch three extraordinary and distinctly different productions of Richard III — most recently at the BAM Harvey Theater in Brooklyn, where the play was a showpiece for Kevin Spacey. We can report that Spacey is not only a highly accomplished classical actor, but also – no surprise – a natural-born entertainer.

The first Richard III that we saw was a August 2010 production at Shakespeare and Company, in Lenox, Massachusetts. As we noted in this post, the Lenox show seemed to us to be as much a set of varied dramatic pieces, each with its own unique entertainment value, than as a dramatized “story” – more of a “show” than what we have come to think a “play” should be. Elizabethan performances of Richard III may well have been much like this; the “quarto” edition of Richard III described the play as

The Tragedie of King Richard the third.
Conteining his treacherous Plots against his brother
Clarence: the pittifull murther of his innocent Ne-
phews: his tyrannical usurpation: with the
whole course of his detested life, and
most deserved death

This show at Lenox didn’t seem fragmented; each scene had oomph, and the total effect was intensely satisfying. Moreover, while Richard (an excellent John Douglas Thompson) necessarily had more of the spotlight than the other actors, this was emphatically an ensemble performance.

Then, in June 2011, we took in a second Richard III at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, in Stratford, Ontario, where we see most of our Shakespeare. Perhaps surprisingly, considering that Richard was played by a woman (Seana McKenna), the director took a much more traditional approach to the play. As we noted in this post, this production, with its clear narrative and controlled emotional arc, was a character study in self-destructive behavior.

Then, in early March, we were able to catch one of the final performances of Richard III at the BAM Harvey Theater, in Brooklyn, a production that served largely to showcase the talents of Kevin Spacey.  A lot of the time, television or movie stars are cast in Broadway plays simply as box-office attractions, irrespective of acting ability, but that was obviously not the case with the star of American Beauty, who is among other things co-director of the Old Vic, the London classical theater company that was a co-producer of the production at the BAM Harvey Theater.

To say that Mr. Spacey was a “ham” would be unfair, but he dominated every scene in which he appeared, including the ones in which he mostly just stood around. His prancing, mocking, leering, sweating (lots of sweat), and boasting were endlessly entertaining, and we were riveted by the spectacle of Richard’s becoming progressively unhinged by paranoia and the corruption of boundless power. Mr. Spacey often spoke directly to the audience, making us complicit in his misogyny and sociopathic ambition. His performance was all the more impressive because of the physical demands of playing Richard with a shoulder hump, a badly deformed leg, and a severe limp.

The rest of the large cast supported Spacey well, although not many supporting actors stood out. We particularly appreciated Annabel Scholey as Anne, the new widow whom Richard artfully persuades to marry him, and Haydn Gwynne as Queen Elizabeth, who wins the rhetorical battle with Richard over whether she should help him woo her daughter, but loses the war to Richard’s superior emotional strength.

Like way too many other productions of Shakespeare these days, this Richard III was set in “modern” times. The characters wore twentieth-century clothes and used electronic technology, and the crippled Richard wore a steel brace on his leg. Mr. Spacey accompanied the lines of Shakespeare with gestures and vocal expressions that are unmistakably part of today’s Brit-American culture (and which didn’t line up with the play’s 1920s setting). The show’s lavish use of blood and gore surely owed much to the gross-out violence we’ve gotten used to in our movies.

Yet even though horses have not been part of Western warfare for 100 years, Richard was still willing, at the play’s end, to trade his kingdom for a horse! My wife says she likes contemporary touches like Mr. Spacey’s in a Shakespeare production. But we still fail to see why a play about 15th-century historical figures should not be set in the 15th century.

These three productions each nailed Richard III, but for different reasons. If you value productions of Shakespeare that try to connect Shakespeare with contemporary culture (personally, we don’t much see the point), and if you enjoy bravura acting (we love it), the BAM’s Richard III, with Kevin Spacey, was the pick of the three.

If what you value most is the language of the Bard and actors who can extract maximum meaning from a speech, the Richard III at Stratford takes the prize. Seana McKenna’s was the best acting performance of the three Richards – subtle, conniving, compelling, and complex.  She even looked the part more than either Kevin Spacey or John Douglas Thompson.

But the Richard III we’d most like to see again is the one we saw in Lenox. We felt that we’d experienced just what the playwright had in mind when, early in his career, he wrote these scenes in the life of Richard – a grand, exuberant pageant with verbal duels, rapier duels, laments, family quarrels, ghosts, shock talk, seductions, horror scenes, and buffoonery. The supporting cast in the Lenox show also succeeded best at fleshing out the distinctive personalities of each of the minor characters.

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.