This post is part of Year of Shakespeare, a project documenting the World Shakespeare Festival, the greatest celebration of Shakespeare the world has ever seen.
Two Roses for Richard III, Companhia Bufomecânica (in association with the Royal Shakespeare Company), dir. Cláudio Baltar and Fabio Ferreira, 23 May 2012 at the Roundhouse Theatre, London
By Sonia Massai, King’s College London
Two Roses for Richard III is a visually stunning retelling of one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays and translates some of its memorable lines into arresting stage images. Richard is literally a ‘wretched, bloody, and usurping boar’. Hunting scenes open both halves of this production. In the first one, Richard wears a boar’s head, sniffs the air and then kills his prey with unflinching precision. Richard’s rifle, aimed at the vast and pitch-black vault looming over the stage in the Roundhouse, goes off with a loud bang and his first victim, Edward, the son of King Henry VI, falls out of the sky leaving a trail of red petals floating mid-air behind him. After the interval Richard, who is still wearing the boar’s head and is now on stilts, towers over Hastings as the latter tries to hide behind moving trees, personated by actors holding branches and wearing rough sacks over their heads. In a vivid re-enactment of Stanley’s dream, the wild boar kills again, this time by shooting an arrow through Hastings’ heart.
The use of sumptuous Elizabethan costumes, light and sound effects and breath-taking aerial work is impressive but it often feels a little contrived and detracts attention from other interesting interventions by co-directors Cláudio Baltar and Fabio Ferreira. Foremost among them is the casting of Richard, who is played, and often simultaneously, by several actors. This casting decision makes Richard’s character seem less accessible, despite the fact that most of his famous soliloquies are retained, but it does work well during the wooing of Lady Anne (Act 1 scene 2 in Shakespeare’s play), when three Richards surround her and three more actors behind a huge screen at the back of the stage make Richard’s power seem irresistible. Also effective is the use of five actors in the persuasion scene, when Richard tries to seduce the Queen into accepting his plan to marry her daughter Elizabeth (Act 4 scene 4 in Shakespeare’s play). On both occasions, the two women are outnumbered by a crowd of Richards who prevail more through their physical than through their rhetorical prowess. Equally powerful is the use of two actors to play Richard at the end of the play. First Richard sits on the wheelchair that doubles as a throne for the sick King Edward IV just before his death earlier in the play. Then Richard hands over the boar’s head to another actor who crawls slowly down stage before he exits through the auditorium, presumably to suggest that Richard’s brutality will not die with him.
Other devices are used to reinforce the distancing effect achieved through this peculiar casting of Richard’s character. For example, the switch to English from Portuguese, the main language used by the Brazilian-speaking cast, foregrounds the scrivener’s lines, which are often and regrettably cut in modern productions, by setting them apart from the rest of the play. Another switch to English marks the moment when the actor playing Edward IV steps out of character to say that he does not know how to die on stage. Meta-theatricality is another distinctive and generally attractive feature in this production, but it occasionally feels rather heavy-handed. Earlier in the same scene, when Edward tries to reconcile opposite court factions, he asks not only the Queen and her allies to embrace their opponents but also Henry IV to embrace Falstaff and, rather unnecessarily, Kenneth Branagh to embrace Emma Thompson, probably alluding to their most popular roles as Henry V and Katherine in Branagh’s Henry V (1989) or Benedick and Beatrice in Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing (1993), and to their subsequent divorce in 1995.
A similar distancing effect is achieved when Queen Margaret speaks new lines just before the battle of Bosworth to reflect both on her plight as a French woman, widowed and exiled, and on her predicament as an actor stuck with a role she no longer knows how to play, like one of Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author. Margaret tests the strength of her character and the range of her skills as an actor by delivering lines from 3 Henry VI, including ‘Look York, I stained this napkin with [your son’s] blood’ and the famous epithet York uses to describe her as a ‘tiger’s heart wrapped in a woman’s hide’. She also speaks a few lines from 2 Henry VI when she cradles Suffolk’s severed head in her lap (‘But who may cease to weep and look on this?). While the use of these additional lines makes sense in the context of Margaret’s meta-theatrical digression, a passing remark, in English, about her arch rival, ‘Eleanor, that cow!’, provides some welcome but rather facile comic relief.
Unfortunately, although Margaret reassures the audience that ‘an actor always knows how to return to the beginning’, this otherwise daring and ambitious production overreaches itself by using Shakespeare as a testing ground for too many different theatrical languages and styles.
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To read more reviews of the performances and events that are a part of the World Shakespeare Festival, visit Year of Shakespeare.
Click below to watch an interview with the directors, created by the Royal Shakespeare Company:
You can also read an essay for The Guardian by Renato Rocha, one of the actors in the production, discussing ‘Why Shakespeare Is… Brazilian’. In it he talks about contemporary Brazilian politics, including parallels with Richard III.