Directed by Robert Richmond for the Folger Theatre at the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, DC, United States, 7 February 2014.
Reviewed by Katherine L. Bradshaw.
Any interpretation of Shakespeare’s Richard III, by definition, contains an impressive – or perhaps oppressive – amount of dark characters and events. After all, the play centers on a murderer and his schemes. However, the Folger Theatre’s excellent Richard III (directed by Robert Richmond) suggested that a deeper, and more disturbing, layer of evil lies beneath the play’s public and political side. The production plunged into these latent shadows, using in-the-round construction and dark staging, as well as a sinister interpretation of even supposedly ‘good’ characters, to immerse the audience in a foreboding atmosphere.
The skillfully established mood rested upon our proximity to the malevolent action. Director Richmond replaced the usual proscenium format with an in-the-round setup, the first in Folger history. Therefore, we felt closer to everything, including the somber bier of Henry VI. In the performance’s extra-textual opening, the Yorkist characters gravely filed onto the stage while Eric Shimelonis’ soundtrack played a solemn song in Latin, creating the impression of a relatively normal medieval-esque funeral. Normal, that is, until the characters suddenly laughed as Queen Elizabeth (Julia Motyka), the Duchess of York (Nanna Ingvarsson), and Princess Elizabeth (Jenna Berk) triumphantly encircled the body. The respectful ceremony had transformed into a ghoulish celebration. Furthermore, the Goth-like costumes (designed by Mariah Hale) enhanced the unearthly eeriness by drawing on traditional representations of vampires, witches, and sorcerers. Queen Elizabeth’s form-fitting red gown, complete with a high-backed black feather collar and fingertip-length sleeves, paid the most obvious homage to such nightmarish figures. The lack of a safe proscenium arch separating us from the stage magnified our sense of danger. We had stepped into the menacing world of the Folger’s Richard III, and we could not distance ourselves from it.
More specifically, the audience’s proximity to the performance area increased the feeling of peril by bringing us within reach of Richard (Drew Cortese). A master of audience interaction, he congenially leant on an elbow to talk with one person, offered a strawberry to another, and remembered to graciously address balcony-sitters. Yet, this Richard’s charm was laced with even more darkness than we might expect from the source text. The same basket of strawberries forming a bond with the audience also provided the fruit that Richard mockingly offered to the severed head of Hastings. Richard’s right hand, unadorned at the beginning of the play, sparkled with rings plucked from his victims – all of whom died onstage – by the end of it. Thus, director Richmond chose a truly apt descriptor when he called Richard a ‘serial killer.’
The dark staging (designed by Tony Cisek) further emphasized the play’s metaphorical darkness, constructing a world oppressed by the otherworldly. The black, rectangular platform floor was covered with interlacing concentric circles. In the ‘world of curses, magic, and superstition’ envisioned by director Richmond, the pattern adopted a clearly sinister character. Margaret (Naomi Jacobson) – a militant witch with wild grey hair, leather breastplate, and spider-web-like shawl – highlighted the design’s possibly occult meanings. As she cursed the Yorkists, Margaret walked in an ever-tightening spiral, her voice becoming more intense and her feet moving faster as she approached the end of her malediction. The imprecation culminated in a loud cry for vengeance as she stood over the central circle – a window to an up-lit pit below her feet. This staging implied that the characters above ground would be troubled by what lurked beneath the stage.
Indeed, the black-and-silver floor concealed ‘the dark, sinister forces of the afterlife,’ which routinely invaded the present life. The stage was a minefield of hidden trapdoors – a rectangular one on each side of the stage and a translucent quarter-circle in each corner, in addition to the circular window-like one in the middle. When Richard and his henchmen opened them, the trapdoors became graves. For instance, Tyrrel (Sean Fri) threw the body of York (Remy Brettell) into one such cavity after smothering York with a stuffed animal. These doors became entrances as well as exits, particularly in Richard’s nightmare before the Battle of Bosworth Field. The ghosts, illuminated by a spectral green light, rose through the corner trap doors to stand glaring at Richard while their curses resounded through the theatre.
Even traditionally ‘good’ characters became tainted by supernatural malice, particularly the Earl of Richmond (Michael Gabriel Goodfriend). Gone was Shakespeare’s pious Earl that brought hopeful light to England, and in his place came director Richmond’s threatening Earl that seemed disturbingly similar to his predecessor. Before the Earl’s first textual entrance, he seemed allied with hostile powers. As Richard prepared for war, the Earl silently haunted him as a faceless phantom in black battle gear and gas mask, heralded by crackling static and a blinding strobe light. In the fight, Richard was killed by a group of unnamed soldiers, but the Earl gloried as if he had heroically slain the tyrant. Finally, darkness dominated in the Earl’s coronation. Margaret made an extra-textual appearance, returning to stand in the middle of the stage. From there, she stared at the Earl as he walked in a circle around her toward the throne, where he was crowned by Stanley (Richard Sheridan Willis) – the same man who set the crown on Richard’s head. Margaret’s controlling presence, combined with the parallels between the Earl and Richard, implied that the whole cycle would start all over again. In this chilling Richard III, the darkness had no end.
 Richmond, Robert. ‘Director’s Notes.’ In the programme for Richard III. January 28—March 16, 2014. 7.