In one of many tense moments in this rendition of Richard III, Queen Margaret (Nora Stewart ’13) curses the titular Richard (Cambrian Thomas-Adams ’13) with many plagues of heaven “beyond what (she) can drum up” as a prophetess. She accuses him of being a “destroyer of the world’s peace,” a title he certainly deserves after he executes a series of bloody murders in an attempt to gain the throne he sees as rightfully his. However, despite his prolific use of staves, daggers, hired hands and asphyxiation as violent tools to gain the upper hand, Richard’s real strength lies in his seductive rhetoric in this gritty version of Shakespeare’s classic.
As is often the case with productions of Richard III, Shakespeare’s second-longest play behind Hamlet, students and staff of professor Joseph Roach (who also directed the show) and postdoctoral associate Lynda Paul’s English/Theater Studies seminar edited the original script to highlight the show’s portrayal of the influence of sexuality in the struggle for political power. The plot centers on Richard’s bloody usurpation of the British throne during the 15th century Wars of the Roses, but Roach and company’s version moved beyond history to focus on universal rhetorical and sexual power dynamics, stripping down Richard III to its barest self.
And strip down they did: in lieu of “women in farthingales and men in pumpkin pants,” as mentioned in the director’s note in the program, the actors instead stalked around the minimalist stage scantily clad in almost entirely black clothing. In a blatant underscoring of the show’s sexual themes, the actors frequently appeared in various levels of nudity, dominatrix-style outfits, and accessorized with BDSM-esque gags or collars. Thomas-Adams and Stewart themselves (whose performances doubled as senior projects) strutted around the stage wearing a long black leather coat and boots and a skin-tight black leather bodysuit, respectively.
All this imagery combined would, in any other setting, offend one’s sense of propriety and common social decency, especially when only cast in the harsh light of a couple overheads. But it doesn’t, because, in this show, the production design serves as a brazen accent on the sexual-political power plays its characters utilize – and it does so brilliantly.
But the bold costuming and masterful staging would be nothing without the support of the actors themselves. In tackling a script that merely bores in many a high school English class, each and every member of the cast manages to mesmerize an entire audience and keep them captivated for the all of the show’s two and a half hours. As put by director Roach: “Shakespeare was never meant to be read.” The characters seem to effortlessly rattle off one complex cadence after another, all while switching between passionately shouting and whispering shakily with repressed emotion.
Though choosing one actor to applaud above the others is about as impossible as picking the cutest puppy of the litter, Thomas-Adams deserves particular credit for his portrayal of the title character. To see evidence of his complete and utter surrender to his performance as Richard, one need not look any further than his eyes: they are the perfect embodiment of “crazy eyes.” They shift and glare and overwhelm other characters without communicating any sign of remorse in his actions or the belief that drives them. They are downright seductive – hypnotizing, threatening, and betraying when Richard’s quest to gain the throne requires it – and they, along with the rest of the cast and production, will seduce any audience member into rapt attention from the opening music to the shocking twist ending.”
Richard III” opened April 5 and has two more performances April 12 and 13 at 8 PM in the Whitney Humanities Center.
Correction: April 17
A previous version of this article mistakenly stated that only theater studies and English professor Joseph Roach is teaching a production seminar on Shakespeare’s “Richard III.” In fact, the seminar is being co-taught by Roach and postdoctoral associate Lynda Paul.