Director's Cut on 'Richard III' at Folger Will Last

Drew Cortese as Richard III
Jeff Malet
Drew Cortese as Richard III

Directors of Shakespeare plays try to find something new in their approach to plays that have after all been staged many times over time.

Robert Richmond, who’s done his share of kings at the Folger Theatre (“Henry V” and "Henry VIII"), but the murderous “Richard III” presented a whole new set of challenges for this director. Some of the results are immediate. For that reason, if you haven’t yet, you should head on over to the Elizabethan Theatre at the Folger while you have the chance. The production—powerful, exciting, thrilling and not a little scary—runs through March 16.

The first thing you’ll notice is that the Elizabethan Theatre isn’t the Elizabethan Theatre any more. Normally, a raised stage with two imposing pillars, the traditional stage has been reconfigured pretty much totally so that “Richard III” can be staged in the round (although it’s actually a square circle), with the audience surrounding the stage on all sides or encircling it.

“I just had this idea,” Richmond said, “that doing it this way offers up so many different sorts of opportunities for me, for the design, for the character and certainly for the audience. Somehow, we managed to do this physically, and it makes for a very different sort of play. I’ve always felt that a lot was going on the play—underneath, if you will, or off stage, that the audience heard about or didn’t even know about.”

The result is that the audience is almost part of the play. It’s a kind of trap in which the audience is hurtled into close proximity with the characters—King Richard himself, along with the thugs and assassins he uses to eliminate the opposition or people he has no further use for. Depending on where you’re sitting, you might suddenly have Richard himself standing or sitting next to you, musing in his sly, sinister way.

“It’s very up close and personal,” Richmond said. “I think we have to look at him from our time as well as his. And the fact that his body was more or less recently discovered and dug up after all this time only lends more immediacy to the production.”

For all of its length and complications, “Richard III” is one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays. It’s been done many times in films (Lawrence Olivier, Al Pacino and Ian McKellen), as well as on stage. “I think he’s a complicated, modern, ambitious man who carries a lot of pain, rage and anger within him. But he’s also very smart, very charming, sexy. Obviously, he’s a villain, but it’s when he’s most self-aware that you like him the most. You don’t altogether know what makes him behave the way he does—perhaps all the women in his life, including his bitter mother."

What Richmond has produced—with a fury-filled, compelling performance by Drew Cortese in the title role who was in the Studio Theatre production of “The M-F in the Hat”—is a kind of vision of a clean, smooth, hell, which opens up periodically to receive one of Richard victims, from his brother, to the princes, to Buckingham and Lady Anne. And when it does, as bodies tumble or slide in, you see a living world down below. Which is downright scary.

The in-the-round stage is not permanent. But the memory will stay with you for a long time. So is this “Richard III.” Go while you can.

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Wed, 30 Jul 2014 07:06:37 -0400

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