Reimagining Shakespeare is about the oldest Holy Grail in theater. The original Globe owner must have sat down with his ruffle-wearing cast to come up with a pseudo-intellectual reinterpretation: “OK guys, tonight’s theme is Shakespeare as feminist commentary.”
In director Sarah Holdren’s ’08 show, the “concept” is a return to the original, the idea being that distilling Shakespeare to his essentials will make for a headier theatrical brew. In practice, this translates to no lighting or sets, actors who double and triple up on parts and cross-gender casting.
Richard III is problematic to stage in general for three main reasons. First, there is the plot. Essentially, Richard (Alex Borinsky ’08, Yale theater’s designated madman) is the disenfranchised, slightly misshapen would-be heir who winds up killing everyone standing between him and the throne in one paranoid plot after another.
But the play consists entirely of the sort of wheels-within-wheels incestuous political machinations that take a lot of greasing on the part of the directorial staff to have us keep track of. There are the Yorks and the Lancasters, and then some rebellious others, and they all go by both their given names and the names of their respective fiefdoms (so George and Clarence are both references to the same Duke, played by David Thier ’09).
Holdren solves this particular problem through clever costuming, and through the opening scene of the show. Suffice it to say that there’s a bit of an autumn before the winter of our discontent, and that it establishes that on the question of whom should inherit, the meek aren’t even in contention.
Holdren’s choices work well, for the most part, and keeping track of the pawns in this most brutal of tournaments is straightforward.
But while nobody expects a Frank Miller field day from the show and it may sound like a reprehensible suggestion in the abstract, a little more pizzazz would prevent the scores of murders from fusing into a featureless bloodbath; if a statistically significant chunk of stage time is going to be consumed by a killing spree, it’s hard to fault the audience for wanting their assassinations with a side of style.
The second problem is that Shakespeare’s histories all require the audience to reorient themselves twice: Once to jump back to Elizabethan England, and the second time backwards even further, to the 15th century Civil War that is the play’s setting. Holdren’s original staging conceit helps out here: With no set to speak of, and costuming so much a pastiche that it might as well be called timeless, it’s easy to let eras merge together.
But the Elizabethan-style cross-gender casting turns out to be so much theatrical jargon. It’s not so much mixing it up if there are no men playing women, unless Holdren was going for a complete reversal of the Elizabethan mores, which would be a bit too subtle to matter.
And the final reason it’s so hard to stage Richard III is, of course, Richard III himself. As anyone who’s seen the oft-satirized Olivier version of the play knows, grotesque grace and a mastery of prosody aren’t enough to save that mission from going over the top.
Luckily, Borinsky is a devotee of Hitchcock’s mantra: Make the villain enough fun, and the audience will want him to succeed. Borinsky is an excellent actor playing an excellent actor, with a self-consciousness complex and a sense of humor all his own, which means he stutters and manipulates as well as he rants, which means that Richard’s most memorable lines aren’t the ones we’ve come to expect from this most complex Bardic villain. Richard may be “determined to be a villain,” but Borinsky gives us the ironic determination alongside the villainy.
The most famous lines, like “my kingdom for a horse” or the line about being “in so far in blood,” are less memorable than the ones with a bit of gallows humor: “I am not made of stone,” “I am not in the giving vein,” “come, THIS is not the way to win our daughter” — said in response to Queen Elizabeth’s (Clare Barron ’08) highly sarcastic suggestion that Richard send to his niece a handkerchief soaked in her brothers’ blood.
The problem with a snarly, magnetic Richard, of course, is trying to hold the show together when he’s off the stage. Since the play is one big vicious paranoia-betrayal-death cycle, it’s hard for the whole thing not to feel rhythmic when Richard is not present to provide a focal point and switch up the tone a little bit. In the first half, Borinsky lurking in the wings still commands more attention than the squabbling courtesans on-stage. The problem with staging sans lighting and sets is that it by default leaves the actors in an uncomfortably harsh spotlight.
But by the second half, some of the other characters have become hypnotic in their own right. Woe really does seem to lend edge to Barron’s confrontation with the man who slew her sons, and the ghosts of slaughter past scene has just enough panache to be eerie. Brechtian touches aside — audience incorporation works for shock value and not much else in this play — the last hour of the play is engrossing.
Is this damning with faint praise? I hope not.
Holdren et. al. succeed admirably in their stated mission, to put on a Shakespeare show that is a “head-on collision of fast, fun, physical popular entertainment with beautiful language and marvelous story-telling.” The Shakespeare Company’s Richard III becomes a universal meditation on carving out (in Richard’s case, quite literally) a place for yourself. To quote the Sex Pistols satirizing Olivier’s dour duke, “It’s hell, it’s hard and it’s horrible.”