Intense 'Richard III' Is in Your Face at Folger
When you watch actor Drew Cortese stalk the stage or stand and scan the audience for approval as the murderous Plantagenet King Richard III at the Folger Elizabethan Theatre, you’re almost for a moment tempted to avoid his eyes, lest he gives you that look that says, “You’re next.”
You could, of course, do like one audience member at the Robert Richmond-directed production of William Shakespeare's “Richard III”: just bow down before the king or cheer him like any member of the groundlings. This is because you’re cajoled, invited, and encouraged to react and interact. It’s the most intimate, interactive “Richard III” that you’ll ever encounter in a lifetime, short of becoming one of his victims in real time. When the Duke of Buckingham, who’s been Richard’s greatest enablers in procuring the royal crown, asks him for his reward and Richard replies by saying “I am not in a giving mood,” you want to yell, “Run, Buckingham, run.”
If the folks at Synetic Theatre offer you silent Shakespeare, Richmond gives you tumultuous, up close and personal Shakespeare, a bang the drums loudly in your face, “Richard III.” Richmond basically had the genteel, front-and-center proscenium with two big pillars façade of the Elizabethan Theatre at the Folger Library renovated into a theater-in-the-round space, complete with spaces that open to receive the remains of murder victims as they are sent on their way, tumbling, struggling, defeated and breathless into a pit. The audience is quite literally on top of everyone. It is in the balcony and rings the square stage. A white stalking ground only occasionally populated by scenery, table or chair, as dark spaces open up to receive the corpses and victims.
This brings a quality to the play which it doesn’t always have. There’s a relentless, time-compressed pace here, compressing the action of what is historically at least five or more years into what seems like several days, and on stage, a couple of hours plus. Time doesn’t so much pass as race by as Richard seems in the end to finally run out of people to kill, murder, seduce, charm, manipulate or ground into bones.
There’s even a piquant in-the-news intimacy, provided by the fact that Richard’s body was found recently in the foundation of a parking lot in Leicester, England, bringing a double whammy of “He’s baaack” to the proceedings on stage.
He’s never been gone, really. The subject of Richard the evil king (or not) has always been up for grabs in historical debates—in novels (“We Speak No Treason”) and most recently in a rather lurid mini-series on Starz cable network, called “The White Queen,” which focuses on many of the women in the Wars of the Roses saga, a fight to the death for the crown of England between the York and Lancaster factions of the Plantagenets.
Shakespeare himself was not a disinterested party in this manner. It is his portrait of the murderous, evil Richard that many people think of as true, and he wrote during the reign of the Tudor Queen Elizabeth I, whose grandfather Henry VII (with a somewhat questionable claim to the throne) killed Richard III at Bosworth Field in 1485.
This Richard—as portrayed by Cortese (he was intense and watchable in the Studio Theatre’s production of “The M-F with the Hat”)—is a charmer, ruthless, even sociopathetic, like some royal serial killer who sweeps away everyone of his path to the throne. He doesn’t have horns, or a hump, or any serious deformity except a limp. All the unnatural stuff is in his voice and eyes. He can be hurt—in the end, he’s killed—but watch how easily he is wounded when one of the princes mocks him by imitating his limp. Most of the time he gets others to do his dirty work. With low-life assassins close to the throne and with orders on paper, hints and lies, the play—one by one—becomes de-peopled.
He’s capable of charm and has the power to bring people to his side—where power sits waiting, and he knows love. “Why Richard loves Richard,” he says at one point.
Mostly, he acts with a kind of self-appreciation and delight that is frightening. Here’s Anne, wife and daughter of enemies he’s killed, and he seduces her into becoming his wife. Here’s his brother Clarence, murdered on false orders. Here’s the nephews, declared illegitimate and murdered. Here’s Stanley and Hastings and Rivers. Sometimes, it almost seems as if proximity can do you in as easily as being a real or perceived threat.
One of the more interesting and powerful aspects of this play is the presence of the women. This is still relatively early Shakespeare before “Hamlet,” “The Tempest” or “Macbeth.” You can see the beginnings of the witches from “Macbeth,” when a quartet of the women gather together in a furious incantation of their sorrows. Julia Motyka as Elizabeth, Nanna Ingvarsson as the Duchess of York, Richard’s mother, Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan as Lady Anne and Naomi Jacobson as Lady Margaret make for a curse-like chorus. Jacobson especially rages like a witchy, ancestral queen who makes a grief-swollen necklace of loss out of every word she spouts.
This production is an engaging one—in the sense that it meets you head on. There’s no ignoring it or any danger of nodding off. Who knows but that Richard might be standing right next to you in the aisle with a death warrant?
-- “Richard III” runs through March 9 at the Folger Elizabethan Theatre, 201 East Capitol St., SE.
View photos of the production by clicking on the photo icons below. (photos by Jeff Malet).