Can RICHARD III be… funny? Can a play whose title character (victim of Tudor propaganda or not) is among England’s most notorious historical heels and who shares company with only Iago and Edmund on the Holy Trinity of Shakespearean villains make us smile and even… chuckle? And if so, can the production still be compelling Shakespeare?
As illogical as it may sound, The Public Theater’s Mobile Shakespeare Unit has daringly answered yes to all these questions, proving it in its stripped-down and streamlined production of Shakespeare’s first great history play. The show manages to be both intense and occasionally farcical, both unabashedly postmodern and expertly traditional in its nimble presentation of Shakespeare’s language. It is Shakespeare for the masses without alienating the open-minded enthusiasts.
RICHARD III opens at the conclusion of the bloody Wars of the Roses, a long civil war in which the House of York ultimately defeated the House of Lancaster for the English throne. As Duke of Gloucester, Richard was instrumental in the York victory that installed his brother Edward as king, but now he wants more, and he is prepared to charge headlong through a bloody river of his own making to ascend the throne himself. Easily among Shakespeare’s bloodiest plays, RICHARD III gives us one of his most memorable characters. Richard is deceitful, murderous, treacherous, and megalomaniacal, but like all great villains he is also damnably charming. Who else could woo the widow and daughter of two men he has killed? Shakespeare had great fun with Richard, and the result is a character we would detest if only he wasn’t so mesmerizing.
The Public’s RICHARD III has come to life in school auditoriums, rest home common rooms, and prison mess halls throughout the New York City area. The Mobile Shakespeare Unit espouses the philosophy of the Public’s founder Joe Papp that Shakespeare is the birthright of us all, and seeks to embody that creed by bringing theater to those least likely and least able to seek it out themselves. As part of this unwaveringly admirable theater initiative, this RICHARD III has seen the inside of group homes for troubled youth, played to elderly and infirmed, and sauntered boldly through the gates of Rikers Island before returning to home base for a brief run where, it seems, the show is being produced in exactly the same fashion as its touring version. Eschewing the Public’s traditional theater space, the show inhabits only a flat floor, made into playing space by four simple sets of temporary bleachers arranged in the round. The lights are flicked on, the actors enter and exit besides the bleachers or even into a first-row chair (it is unlikely, after all, that a prison would have spotlights or a green room), and Shakespeare happens.
There are of course trade-offs for this unique downtown glimpse into the life of Shakespeare on tour for the masses. Accessibility is paramount, so the acting becomes by necessity a bit hammy and overly gestural. Appeals to Heaven are sure to be accompanied by arms to the sky; the many references to the play’s kings and nobleman are aided by points directly to the actor playing the part, as if to say “See? That’s who I’m talking about. Don’t forget now”; and some of the more lighthearted elements added to keep hold of any wandering attention spans undercut moments of real drama. Of course, accessibility is by no means a bad thing, and anybody with experience of a Shakespearean history play has had the problem of keeping the enormous cast of characters—along with their relations and evolving allegiances—sorted.
This RICHARD III’s most distinctive and clever nod to the play’s challenges aims to address such confusion. On the floor in the middle of the playing space lies a large sheet bearing the branches of the royal family tree most pertinent to the play. An added preamble explains how we got from Edward III through several generations of kings to the time of the play, blotting out with red paint the names of dead kings on the sheet. This sheet returns regularly throughout the play, like a tote board of death, whenever the name of a noble needs to be blotted (often it is Richard himself, grunting in pride, marking off his fallen enemies). Like an on-stage study guide, the sheet makes material and vivid Richard’s treacherous march through all those who would challenge his ascent to the throne.
Necessarily overwrought though some of the acting and direction may be, RICHARD III is ultimately a play about one man, after all, and Ron Cephas Jones gives us a Richard vivid enough to transcend the production’s concessions to accessibility. His Richard is not a raving and depraved scoundrel so typical of the character on stage, but a thoughtful and brooding conniver. Director Amanda Dehnert foregoes Richard’s trademark humpback, but has not done away with his deformity entirely: he walks with a leg brace and limp, and struggles with an ill-functioning arm. Jones skillfully locates the scornful heart inside this malformed tyrant, suggesting not viciousness for the sake of viciousness, but villainy borne out of an overpowering spite for the world and its beautiful, smugly able-bodied people.
With an ensemble filled by gender- and racial-blind casting, actors regularly playing several parts, and a bare minimum of scenery and effects (never, by the way, has bubble wrap been put to more brilliantly cringe-inducing use), this RICHARD III has the feeling of ten friends getting together to put on a play. And although those ten friends happen to be first-rate performers, the Public’s Mobile Shakespeare Unit heartily embraces the community-theater aesthetic. If Shakespeare is the birthright of us all, RICHARD III shows that not only can his work be accessible to everybody, but so, too, can its production be achievable by anybody. The hoary Shakespearean purists might scoff, but this production is not for them. This is Shakespeare for the people, and perhaps most of all for the Shakespeare enthusiasts with a reluctant partner, child, student, or friend who might need a little encouragement in claiming their birthright.
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Amanda Dehnert
August 6th – August 25th
The Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street
New York, NY 10003