Richard III at Cupids, NL, dir. Danielle Irvine, Perchance Theatre, August 20th, 2017.
Reviewed by Michelle King, Memorial University.
Perchance Theatre is back for their eighth season of theatre at Cupids. Richard III, directed by Danielle Irvine (who also serves as the company’s Artistic Director), is one of three offerings at Perchance this summer. This adaption is set during what appears to be the World-War-I era, based on the lavish costuming designed by Jill Kennedy and Michelle O’Connell. The play was performed to a nearly sold-out audience by actors who have been regularly appearing at Perchance, as well as some new performers who have recently joined the company.
In 2016, Perchance Theatre was named one of the “most unique” ways to experience Shakespeare in Canada, and the company certainly lives up to that distinction. The theatre, constructed in 2010 for the Cupids 400 celebrations, is modeled after Shakespeare’s Globe, and as an open-air space it is perfect for taking in a matinee on a brisk Newfoundland afternoon. The seating area and part of the stage are protected by an overhead covering in the ever-so-likely event of rain, but on a day when the sun shines brightly, it allows a natural glow to beam upon the actors as they move around the thrust stage. To get the most comfortable experience, it is a good idea to pack along something soft to place over the wooden seating – or you can purchase raffle tickets for the “Royal Box,” and if you’re lucky, you’ll get to sit in what the company claims to be the most comfortable seats in the house.
The performance begins with a simple set: nothing but a makeshift casket positioned at centre stage and helmets hanging along the face of the tiring house, awaiting use in the final act. Cryptic music begins to play, appropriately setting the tone for the mourning Queen Margaret (Allison Moira Kelly) and Lady Anne (Erin Mackey) to enter. Dressed elegantly in black, they provide a stark juxtaposition to the jubilant procession of Yorks who enter from the front of the theatre dressed in an array of pastel-coloured frocks and suits. Immediately, a fight erupts in front of and on the stage, promptly breaking the feeling of melancholy that moments before filled the air. As the fight is broken up, and order is seemingly restored, a recording of “God Save the King” plays while King Edward IV (Greg House) and Queen Elizabeth (Alexis Koetting), with their backs to the audience, address their subjects from the theatre’s balcony. Irvine’s direction of her actors in this scene re-enforces the audience/actor relationship by cleverly reminding them that they are merely onlookers of the drama that is about to unfold.
Steve O’Connell, who returns to Perchance after a season away, perfectly embodies the villainous King Richard with every movement he makes, be it struggling to climb and crawl the steps that lead from pit to stage or limping and hauling his seemingly useless leg to get from one place to another. O’Connell’s disfigurement is embellished by his artificially deformed hand, which remains paralyzed for the entire production. What is most compelling about O’Connell’s performance is the way he plays the pitiful, the concerned, and the sympathetic man while others are present, and then quickly shifts to the goofy, yet conniving tyrant with such ease.
John Sheehan, a talented comedian, plays Ratcliffe with a sinister charm. Dressed in a suit and fedora reminiscent of a mobster, he plays the character with a dynamic air about him. His comedic timing is particularly good during the scene in which he must drown George, Duke of Clarence (Paul Wilson) in a barrel of wine that is positioned directly in front of the stage. The audience bursts into laughter as Wilson lies face first and motionless in the barrel, and Sheehan fills his mug up with wine, taking a sip before effortlessly throwing his victim over his shoulder and walking off stage.
A favourite device of Perchance Theatre is to add some Newfoundland flare to their shows. Coupled with the forest landscape that surrounds the theatre, the actors’ tendency to exaggerate the “Newfie” accent at opportune moments is one of the attributes that gives Perchance Theatre so much of its character. This charm is perhaps most prominent during Richard III when a messenger (Evan Mercer) brings word to Lord Hastings (Andrew Tremblett) from Lord Stanley (Paul Wilson), urging him to beware of Richard. Mercer is at this point dressed as an early-20th century fisherman, and exaggerates his local accent to great comedic effect. O’Connell, too, occasionally abandons his “Shakespearean” delivery of the lines and in his Act-I soliloquy accentuates his accent for “right royal,” receiving hardy laughter from the house.
During the intermission, Tremblett, still in character provides a mock-daily news clipping to the audience describing Lord Richmond’s challenge to “the Boar himself.” Once the action resumes, there is a noticeable shift in tone for the performance. The actors, save for Richard and Richmond (Evan Mercer), are all costumed in identical military uniforms – a green one-piece jumpsuit reminiscent of those worn by the British Army. Players off stage stamp their feet in a rhythmic march as each actor enters the stage to collect their helmet and join either the Yorkist or Lancastrian side. The whole pageant is well choreographed and captivating to watch.
The depiction of the ghosts visiting Richard and Richmond on the night before battle is especially effective as the theatre’s balcony is covered by a thin white sheet and an eerie recording of whispers sound in the theatre. Each ghost in turn makes their speech to Richard and Richmond, pushing their faces against the sheet, allowing only their imprint to be visible. Mackey’s ghost is particularly uncanny as she contorts her head nearly upside down while calling for Richard to “despair and die!”
The final scenes of the play become a completely immersive experience. Actors sit amongst the first rows of the audience while listening to their cast-mates on stage. During the great battle scene, sounds of gunshots fill the air while actors run behind the outside of the enclosed theatre, pounding on the backs of the audience’s seats through the building’s thin wooden walls. Irvine’s choice to have the battle weapons heard but not seen allows one to become utterly absorbed by the actor’s emphatic expressions during the battle, particularly when Tremblett, in-time with the sound effects, is shot by an out-of-sight solider and killed on stage. The battle climaxes as King Richard is ambushed and murdered by his opponents. Irvine has her fallen villain’s life end in the same area where the audience first saw him, symbolically demonstrating the full circle of Richard’s short reign as his lifeless body is carried away.
Richard III runs alternating with The Taming of the Shrew and Our Eliza until August 27th, 2017. Running time for the play is 2 hours and 30 minutes, including a fifteen-minute intermission. For more information, or to purchase tickets, visit: https://www.perchancetheatre.com
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.
Reviewing Shakespeare is produced by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and the University of Warwick to provide a searchable archive of independent reviews of worldwide Shakespearian performance.