Richard III by The Baron’s Men, directed by Joe Falocco, at Garriott’s Curtain Theatre, Austin, Texas. April 7, 2016.
Reviewed by Michael Saenger, Southwestern University
Richard III is a savage, and Richard III is guilty pleasure. Theoretically, it’s a play that supports the Tudor myth; that is, a play that portrays a dastardly bad enemy and a heroically good savior. The enemy is Richard III, and the hero is Richmond, aka Henry VII, the grandfather of good old Queen Bess. Shakespeare was writing this play while that queen was on the throne, so one can hardly expect his depiction of history to be even-handed. His audience watched the hunchbacked Richard kill people and were happy that providential history found a way to punish that sinful bad king and put England on a holy course. In fact, however, it’s hard not to delight in the villainous Richard, even back in its original staging. Famously, one woman who saw Shakespeare’s company perform sent a message to the actors backstage asking for the tyrannical king to visit her, privately, and play the king in her bedroom. Bad boys have all the luck.
In modern times we have even more reasons to like the bad king: we don’t feel indebted to a monarch who hated him, and we (thankfully) don’t scorn disability as a moral failing. All this makes Richard even more sympathetic, notwithstanding his habit of killing people. He is so brazen and clever about it that one admires his skill. Actually, he was the original anti-hero: there could never have been a Walter White before there was a Richard III. While that may be true, this production comes after Breaking Bad, and this Richard shares the DNA of Bryan Cranston’s virtuosic performance. Rather than exaggerating the disability written so deeply into the play, as productions often did a century ago, or almost erasing it, as productions often do now, Andy Bond operates with an almost elegant limp in his portrayal of the ambitious Richard. His mien seems to suggest a casual acceptance of his physical limitations as he patrols the stage. With remarkably expressive brows and lips, he is both melodramatic and plausible, showing the greedy cynicism of Cranston’s character. One doesn’t really leave with a settled sense of why Richard is so bad, but then our time has taught us to be more suspicious of simple explanations that seem to make evil go away.
In this production, Joe Falocco has opted to drastically cut the text, and add scenes from the play which precedes it in what was originally a historical tetralogy on the War of the Roses. That decision emphasizes the life story of Richard, and it downplays a lot of the political nuance of this tragedy. For example, William, Lord Hastings is a huge role in the original play—he’s the Lord Chamberlain—and he is simply gone in this version. This causes the emphasis to be more psychological, and Falocco reinforces that focus by giving heavy weight to the curse which the Duchess of York, Richard’s mother, gives her son before battle. The psychological tilt allows the women in general a stronger place on the stage, including the take-no-prisoners Leanna Holmquist as Queen Margaret and Taylor Flanagan as Lady Anne, fiery and defiant until the witty Richard wins her desire (and in a sense, her soul). Dave Yakubik is powerful as Buckingham, following his evil friend closely in a march toward damnation. Until conscience gets the better of him, Buckingham is the only friend Richard has. The supporting cast performs with passion and care, and the swordfights were strong, if a bit slow.
The experience of attending a play the Curtain Theatre is an adventure—one must be careful on the drive down because the road is just barely wide enough to squeeze by a vehicle on the ascent. As you park, attendants offer friendly assistance filling a grass lot. Torches ward off the evil spirits of mosquitos and jet-skiers on nearby Lake Austin. Attending any play there feels like an act of defiance against a modern culture of connectivity, celebrity and commerce; there was actually an auditory battle for a moment between Shakespeare’s pentameter and a powerboat blasting “Call Me Maybe.” The weightier aspects of this play—some of its detailed political intrigue, and many of its long speeches—would not thrive in this scale model of Shakespeare’s Globe. The directorial choice to privilege Richard’s personal drama over his political one works well in this environment, although other aspects of the stage could have been more richly exploited. For example, when ghosts appear to haunt Richard before his demise in the Battle of Bosworth Field, why not have them speak from the audience’s balconies? This theater seems tailor-made for a bit more flirtation with the supernatural, the erotic and the voyeuristic tendencies of this play; part of its seduction is that of an iambic haunted house, and if you’re going to fight against jet-skiers, there’s no need to play fair.
This particular Richard is deliciously understated as he navigates the moral morass of the Wars of the Roses. The less murderous characters, such as Julio Mella’s hapless Clarence, Chris Casey’s stolid Edward IV, and ultimately Yakubik’s philosophical Buckingham, seemed finally to recoil from the villainous anti-hero that Shakespeare so gloriously created. No word yet on whether a message was sent backstage.