Richard III

  • Date:
    November 1, 2007
    Review by:
    Barbara Mehlman and Geri Manus.

    A Review by Barbara Mehlman and Geri Manus.

    In their conversation in the Classic Stage Company's newsletter, co-directors Michael Cumpsty, who is starring as Richard III, and Brian Kulick, discuss the importance of bringing Shakespeare's "Richard III" to life at this time, despite the fact that is has been produced in New York so often.

    "The thing that stunned me," says Kulick, "is that I thought I knew [the play] and in reading it, I realized that I didn't," leading him to the conclusion that "Richard III" is not a history play, but rather a play about "the nature of evil, how evil happens, and how conscience can counteract and combat it."

    Thus we have what CSC calls a "re-imagining" of the classic canon. One can envision a similar discussion among the members of the original Globe Theatre's own repertory acting company, with Shakespeare, Richard Burbage and maybe Will Kempe wondering how to address the new audiences of the 1597 season, and what aspect of English history to focus on next. How Shakespeare and his actors handled the pesky civil wars and usurpations of English history has shaped Western ideas for the last 500 years and counting.

    But this is 21st century America, and there's no correlation between Shakespeare and our way of life. Right? Why bother with these cumbersome, language-laden, outmoded plays? What connection can there be to modern audiences? Hmmm, a strong political family who gains power in dubious ways, stealing it from its rightful owner and denying the wishes of the public, entering into an unpopular war with unpredictable leaders who can't be trusted. Nah, never work.

    But what if the new king, who has killed off the rightful king, is the wrong son for the job? What if he's really hated by his powerful mother from birth and has been catapulted into villainy by a self-fulfilling prophecy that he can never be a "good person" since no one can love someone so ugly? What if we put a cowboy hat on him, let him ride "his horse, his horse, his kingdom for a horse," then make him likeable so no one will notice he's violating the entire kingdom for his own gratification? Nah, never work. Audiences won't buy it.

    But Cumpsty's monarch brings Shakespeare and us to task as he cultivates every emotional strand in our fiber. Richard can be charming and seductive, even beguiling while limping across the stage. This is Cumpsty's gift -- he "gets" Richard, and brings his strengths and weaknesses to the forefront in an incredible performance. Watching the audience respond to the cunning of this very special villain, we realize how important it is that we as a culture keep these vehicles running.

    The universality of wanting a mother's love against all odds; of power for its own sake; of believing totally that others' perceptions of you determine your self-worth, are as vital today as then. In his opening monologue, Richard takes great glee in proclaiming himself a villain and says "I'm going to play this." It is a game at the outset, but by the end, his "I and I" moment is his epiphany, the realization that what he has done was no game, and that he is indeed a horrible person, an awful moment of self-awareness by a bitter man who has finally acknowledged his conscience."

    Maybe that's the real lesson of this human tragedy. Maybe that's the one thing that resonates in today's highly charged political atmosphere. Are our leaders who they claim to be? Are the public and private persona ever as real as their sound-bytes, or is it the other way around?

    Teaching Shakespeare to today's youth is a challenge. Making it real and relevant to adults who think they know their Shakespeare is the fodder of many directors' misguided attempts at modernization of the text and formats.

    But this production shows more than ever, that the way of making Shakespeare accessible and meaningful is to let the action unfold and the words shine, dramatized by phenomenal actors who know that relationships and universalities transcend time and space. This is "no fear Shakespeare," at its best.

    Barbara Mehlman & Geri Manus