“All the world’s a stage” (no. 11 in series)

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In the run-up to The Ninth World Shakespeare Congress in Prague I posted a selection of blogs from grant winners looking forward to that event. Over the next couple of weeks I will be posting a selection of blogs from some  more of those grant winners.  This week’s contribution comes from Tina Krontiris, who is Professor of Renaissance Literature at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in Northern Greece.

Sam Mendes’s Richard III at Epidaurus

Reviewed by Tina Krontiris, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki

Greeks recently thronged to the ancient theatre of Epidaurus by the masses to see the Bridge Project production of Richard III, featuring Kevin Spacey in the title role. The two performances scheduled for 29-30 July were sold out within hours from the time the ticket sale began on the Internet and an extra performance had to be fitted into the  theatre’s Festival Programme to satisfy the high demand (the joke went, ‘my kingdom for a ticket’). Whether it was the good impression the Bridge Project and its director had left in Greece a couple of years ago (when they had presented the Winter’s Tale at the same place) or the desire to see the film star Kevin Spacey in the role of the villainous, crippled king (or both), a total of about 27,000 spectators, traveled from all parts of Greece to see and hear Richard III in English with Greek supertitles. I was one of the thousands who attended the performance and found it quite compelling, as did the rest of the audience, who gave actors a standing ovation with prolonged applause and shouted many hearty ‘bravos’.

Mendes created a production that maintained the focus on Richard at the same time that it paid sensitive attention to the text’s nuances in mood and tempo, as well as to the variety of verbal and representational styles. Above all, Mendes globalized successfully an English play that is customarily viewed within the context of the civil wars (Wars of the Roses) that England experienced before the consolidation of central power by the early Tudors. Indeed one might say that the director combined successfully two seemingly unlike things: the Englishness of Shakespeare and the Greekness of Epidaurus.

The performance began with a video wall, depicting the watchful eyes of Richard over a chorus of drummers through which one could get a glimpse of a gilded seat of power. This image introduced the power theme and linked the beginning with the end, as the same drummers appeared in the battle scenes of the final act. The theme of power, with a clear allusion to modern dictators, was indeed very prominent in Mendes’s interpretation, but it was not the only issue brought forward. At least three things are noteworthy in Mendes’s Richard III as I saw it performed at Epidaurus: the interpretation of the protagonist, the treatment of the women in the play, and the allusions to ancient Greek drama.

Kevin Spacey captured brilliantly the physical condition, self-hatred and multifaceted personality of Shakespeare’s protagonist. With his left leg clipped up in a metal splint and a hunched back, he moved across the empty stage energetically in complete control of his role. His voice, aided only by the natural acoustics of the place, carried clearly throughout the open-air amphitheatre. During the first half of the play, Spacey portrayed Richard as a supreme actor who entertains the audience with the various roles he plays on his way to the throne. He and Mendes exploited to the full the special relationship that Shakespeare establishes between his protagonist and the audience, including the use of direct address, facing and speaking to the viewers from a front-stage position.

In the portrayal of the women’s suffering there were several allusions to Greek drama. At the end of the first scene in Act Four of Shakespeare’s play Queen Elizabeth, the Duchess of York, and Lady Anne come to theTowerofLondonto see the children. In the Folio version of the text, this scene is concluded with a six-line apostrophe to the Tower spoken by Elizabeth. In Mendes’s production this apostrophe, which begins with the plea ‘Pity, you ancient stones, those tender babes’, was chanted by the three women facing the audience and so the word ‘ancient’ took on a double meaning—referring to the oldness of the Tower but also to the ancient stones upon which the spectators sat.  In the same vain, Mendes created images of ancient mourning rites with the three women bewailing their children’s death, dressed in black and bend on their knees.

Allusion to Greek tragedy was also made through the creation of various choral forms. Since the play does not include a typical chorus, Mendes create chorus-like images with the women chanting their lines together, as well as with the army at the end, made up of twelve drummers arranged in circular manner and synchronized in their beats. The most obvious reference to classical Greek drama was the final head-side-down hanging of Richard’s body, which resembled a deus ex machina device and suggested the image of a slaughtered animal, the ‘hog’-Richard referred to throughout the play. It was a very impressive scene, as spectacular as actual scenes in Shakespeare’sLondon (and no doubt painful for the actor, who stayed in this very uncomfortable position for several minutes).

All in all, Mendes proved that Shakespeare’s Englishness can be brought into dialogue with ancient Greek drama, not by distorting or exaggerating the bard’s text, but by elucidating aspects of its style that manifest the indirect, almost labyrinthine course of the theatre from antiquity to early modern times. The spirit of Epidaurus Theatre helped him to do this.

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (along with Charles University, Prague, and The International Shakespeare Association) sponsored individuals from Argentina, Romania, Hungary, India, Russia, Canada, Poland, Australia, New Zealand, Greece, and Chile to attend the World Shakespeare Congress 2011.  Make sure that you follow this series to hear from more of our award winners  who will be talking about the ways in which Shakespeare is a subject for research, performance, and conversation across the globe.

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Author:Nick Walton

Nick Walton is a Lecturer in Shakespeare Studies at The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

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