Booth’s Richard III, produced by the Hidden Room and The Harry Ransom Center at the Austin Scottish Rite Theater. Directed by Beth Burns. Austin, Texas, June 16, 2018.
Reviewed by Michael Saenger.
Fame and infamy come very close together, and always have. To be famous is to do something extraordinary, or to be someone who attracts great attention. But attention is a fickle thing, and history quickly sorts its celebrities into heroes and villains.
This production of Richard III, in the stately and beautifully restored Scottish Rite theater in Austin, encounters at least three layers of celebrity. First, of course, is the historical titular king, who was the enemy of the grandfather of Shakespeare’s beloved Elizabeth I. Whether or not Richard III was evil is beside the point; Shakespeare’s version of him needed to be, and the young poet rose to the challenge, creating the second layer, the great villain of the play, which hit the stage about a century after the historical king. That’s the Richard we know and love to hate, in what may be one of the most influential roles of all time—a dastardly, nephew-killing villain whose defeat paved the way for a better England. The third layer happened another couple of centuries later, when Shakespeare was popular in the newly ambitious cultural world of nineteenth-century America. During that time, it so happens that the leading family of Shakespearean actors shared the surname Booth. That name is familiar for its association with John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of Abraham Lincoln. Though it’s not generally known, the assassin was already famous before he became infamous. He staged Richard III (himself playing the leading role) to acclaim in 1861.
The Hidden Room became known for staging Nahum Tate’s version of King Lear a few years ago. It was a brilliant and ambitious project. Shakespeare scholars are accustomed to talking about “original practices”—meaning Elizabethan ones, and we are accustomed to talking about Tate’s Lear as a moving but strange version of the original play. This company put that play on the boards, and they are now doing Booth’s Richard in much the same way, bringing us a vision of something quite like what Booth’s audience would have seen.
The actors use hand gestures and declamatory styles of acting that modern audiences are not used to seeing, in an effort to recreate the staging practice of the American 19th century drama. The Scottish Rite Theater, itself built in 1871, offers the perfect setting for such a project, and one really feels transported to an earlier time. Following Booth’s promptbook means that this is not the Richard you thought you knew; it’s a heavily adjusted script, including scenes from other plays in the tetralogy, as well as quotes from other plays by Shakespeare. Live musicians performed entr’acte music, which was often delightfully at odds with the theatrical affect; the dancing tones of the violin and trumpet served to remind the audience that this tragedy is meant to be enjoyed, not suffered too painfully. Delightfully understated hanging flats were dropped and lifted to note changes in scene. The theater felt quite authentic, if not for a standing AV screen forgotten above the left wing.
The performances were roundly captivating, though it does seem that training modern actors to perform in a period style entails prioritizing the style itself – elongated hands, powerful direct address, and more than a hint of melodrama – and comes at the cost of traditional skills, such as clearly communicating the lines, and on occasion, successfully memorizing them. As the pained and ultimately tragically conscientious Buckingham, Robert Matney bridged the gap. Judd Farris, as the kingly villain himself, seemed like the image of the original Booth, posing and delighting the audience. He was very much the thrilling villain one imagines Booth to have been, before he became a worse one.
Addressing the audience before the show, Beth Burns (called Master of Play in the program) addressed the proverbial elephant in the room. Booth killed America’s greatest president, only four years after bringing life to Shakespeare’s worst villain. Burns was at pains to clarify that the production does not serve to glorify the actor turned assassin, but rather seeks to put an important bit of history onstage. On that score it was certainly a success, and this reviewer hopes that the company goes on to cultivate this project of staging historical Shakespeares in new and exciting ways. We have a lot to learn from examining the layers of the past, and this was a serious effort to confront them.