Richard III, translated and directed by Jack Nieborg, Shakespeare Theater Diever, The Netherlands, 3 September 2016
Reviewed by Paul Franssen (Utrecht University)
This year, the venerable Diever Shakespeare festival celebrated its 70th anniversary. Ever since the Second World War, this village in the North of the Netherlands has staged a Shakespeare production during the summer months, largely run by amateurs. There is no sign that its popularity is diminishing; on the contrary, this year two extra performances were scheduled to meet the great demand for tickets. Besides, next to the out-door auditorium, now also an in-door theatre has been erected, modelled on the Globe, where introductory talks are held, and where a winter programme (The Midsummer Night’s Dream) will be set up to complement the summer festivities.
For this production of Richard III, the open-air stage divided the auditorium into two halves, with the audience sitting on both sides of a central platform. At both ends of the stage, there was a door, and stairs leading up to a balcony backed by facades of greyish buildings. Fragmented words, recognizable as keywords from the (English) play text, were written on these facades. Similar facades enclosed the entire auditorium; one, shaped like a church, had the word “sanctuary” written on it. Two narrow gangways leading off the main stage, one on each side, served for small groups of characters to enter and exit, whereas bigger groups used the entrances near the balconies on either side. This design lent itself to visual display. The cast was numerous, and dressed in opulent period costumes; yet, in keeping with the tragic atmosphere, the colours were subdued. Richard, the consummate hypocrite, wore spotless white, while shades of grey and black predominated among the other characters. Only the Rivers clan brought some colour onto the stage, as they all had red hair, which set them apart from the others. The many court scenes, particularly in the first half, were used to parade the royal train along the long central stage, accompanied by bursts of festive music. In line with this solemnity, the text had been translated rather more literally, with fewer added jokes or allusions to the modern world than has been usual in Diever lately. Particularly before the break, the effect was that of an impressive but static spectacle, which formed the perfect foil for Richard’s charismatic and versatile behaviour.
The fact that the entire auditorium was enclosed by facades was used particularly well in scene 3.7, where Richard appeared, on one of the balconies, between two bishops. Buckingham stood on the central stage, looking up at Richard and pleading with him to accept the throne. Some other actors had mingled among the audience and called to Richard from there. The effect was to make the audience feel part of a crowd on the town square, and to experience the pull of the mass, with its whipped up enthusiasm for Richard. At the same time, the irony of Buckingham’s praise of Richard’s love for his relatives, friends, and for all of his subjects was palpable.
Richard was a master of manipulation. On his first appearance, he sat in an old-fashioned wooden wheelchair, accompanied by two nurses. One of them took away a chamber pot, while the other helped Richard to wipe his behind. When he got up to embrace his brother Clarence, on his way to the tower, and promised to help him, he pretended to fall over, enfeebled by emotion. As the audience quickly found out, this infirmity was just an act calculated to raise pity.
Richard’s wheelchair, with a horse’s head carved in the back rest, was just about the only moveable prop on stage. It was also depicted on the programme flyer, as the production’s visual icon; and indeed, it was Richard’s favourite instrument of manipulation. When he accused his enemies of having bewitched him (3.4), he sat in the wheel chair and made his leg tremble awfully. He was no hunchback, but a physically healthy and fit man, but when it suited his purposes, he played the invalid. At other times, he got up and used the wheelchair as a walker; or, when leading his troops into battle or trying to impress Anne with his lover-like qualities (1.2), he would just drag it behind him. Anne actually spat him in the face when he stood up straight; but she fell for his wiles when he helplessly lay down on the floor before her, asking her to kill him. When in scene 4.2 Richard asked Buckingham to cooperate in the murder of his nephews, he first asked him to sit down. Buckingham looked around in puzzlement, but did not see a chair; Richard then offered him his own wheel chair, so he could tower over Buckingham and bully him.
Thus, alternating between bullying and evoking pity, Richard left the other characters puzzled. His character was so overpowering that he put most of the others in his shadow. Only Buckingham, a vile, effete time server, seemed to match his villainy for a while, until he, too, was overreached.
Among the female characters, Queen Elizabeth stood out. When she was alone with her brothers, contemplating the dangers in her husband’s illness, she seemed close to panic, but when her enemies, Stanley and Buckingham, entered, she froze in cold dignity, befitting a queen (1.3).
The two murderers of Clarence (1.4) provided the performance’s sole comic relief. One addressed the audience directly, asking them if they had anything to drink for the other murderer, to help him overcome his attack of conscience. After they had killed Clarence off-stage, a trap door opened in the stage floor, down which he solemnly descended to his grave. Many more trapdoors were opened as the performance went on, to receive Richard’s victims. On the evening before Bosworth, the trapdoors opened up again, to let out all the ghosts that came to haunt the murderer.
The performance ended with a rather brief battle of Bosworth. Instead of the single combat between Richard and Richmond, as in Shakespeare’s text (5.8), we saw two veritable small armies going for each other. Battles can be risky for the actors, but here it was stylised, with stroboscopic effects. In the middle of the confusion, we heard Richard, who went into battle manfully, call out “a kingdom for horse”, also alluding to the carved out horse’s head on his wheelchair; and then it was over, soldiers lying on the stage floor with their swords planted among them like crosses on graves, and Richmond spoke the concluding words. Definitely a more upright man in this production, without any of the obvious ironies that one has almost come to expect, Richmond was rather colourless compared to Richard, memorably played by Floris Albrecht, as a whining monster we love to hate.