Richard III, Directed by Garry Hynes for DruidShakespeare, White Lights Festival, Lincoln Center, Gerald W. Lunch Theater at John Jay College, November 7-23, 2019, Reviewed on November 23, 2019.
Reviewed by James Loehlin.
Druid is a leading Irish theatre company based in Galway, perhaps best known for premiering contemporary work like Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane, which won four Tonys in 1998. A few years ago, as DruidShakespeare, they staged an epic production of the Henriad, and they recently returned to Shakespearean history with this thrilling Richard III, which played in Galway before a brief run at Lincoln Center’s White Lights Festival. A vivid and dynamic production full of unforgettable theatrical imagery, Druid’s Richard III made the play seem both timely and timeless.
Richard III is a tricky play for the twenty-first century. Its protagonist’s deeds are so reprehensible that contemporary audiences would be unlikely to respond to the swaggering bravura of a Laurence Olivier or Antony Sher. Yet a wholly repellent Richard becomes hard to watch. The 2012 discovery of the remains of the historical Richard III reawakened a sympathetic interest in his physical body, twisted by scoliosis and hacked by swords. Druid’s program quoted Carol Ann Duffy’s recent poem: “My bones, scripted in light, upon cold soil,/ a human braille. My skull, scarred by a crown,/ emptied of history.” Druid’s production allowed measures of both swagger and sympathy to Aaron Monaghan’s energetic Richard, but distributed interest and blame across the dramatis personae, and eventually out to the audience.
The set was a cold, prison-like enclosure, similar to that used in the Almeida Richard II, with grey sheet metal panels and high barred windows, both of which were occasionally opened to create a greater sense of space and light. High over the stage hung a glass box containing a skull; the floor was carpeted with synthetic earth, and a grave-trap yawned downstage center. It was from this trap that Richard emerged in the opening moments of the play.
Aaron Monaghan was a charismatic, handsome, and dynamic Richard, but not an especially likeable one; the production made no bones about his psychotic evil. He walked on two canes, rather in the manner of Sher’s famous crutch-propelled performance. He used a remarkably wide and expressive vocal range, moving from powerful commanding shouts to an almost shrieking falsetto laced with irony. He also brought a sense of dangerous, menacing sexuality to the role. His “wooing” of Ann was one of the production’s signature images. She entered dragging the body of Henry VI (a shrouded dummy) on the long train of her dress, which stretched across nearly the whole stage. He stopped her progress by slamming down his cane on the train, causing her to fall. During the scene, he prowled restlessly round her, leaning forward on his canes at a severe, preying-mantis angle that was both seductive and sickening. At the end of the scene he tipped the corpse unceremoniously into the grave.
While Anne capitulated under protest, the women of the play represented, on the whole, a strong counter-force to Richard’s tyranny. The female roles were strongly cast and left largely uncut, so the choral effect of their resistance to Richard came through pointedly. Jane Brennan was a powerful and majestic Queen Elizabeth, and Ingrid Craigie a stern Duchess of Gloucester: part of their impact came from the scale of their costumes, gilt-encrusted and grandly bustled. Marie Mullen (the Tony-winning lead in The Beauty Queen of Leenane) made a contrasting but equally vivid impression as Queen Margaret. She was the first character seen in the production, even before Richard: a ghostly shrouded figure who tottered across the back of the stage, a haunting memory of past turmoil. In the Irish context of the production, she perhaps suggested the mythic matriarch Kathleen Ni Houlihan, personification of a wounded nation.
Mullen also doubled the role of the Mayor, in a sequence that highlighted Hynes’ effective marshalling of her human resources. Richard III is a huge play with fifty-odd characters; Hynes employed shrewd doubling and streamlining to convey the story clearly with a cast of thirteen. 3.7, the scene in which Richard accepts the crown from Buckingham in front of the London citizens, is usually crowded with shouting supernumeraries. In this production the theatre audience served as the crowd, with Mullen’s Mayor as our lone representative. The economical staging extended to representing the clergymen who accompany Richard by life-size puppets, contrived by draping bishops’ robes over crosses at the back of the stage, so that they were literally, in Buckingham’s words, “two props of virtue”.
The most memorable doubling came from Druid core ensemble member Marty Rea, who played a haunted, poetic Clarence and a chilling Beckettian Catesby. The latter was an especially prominent character in the production, set off by his distinctive appearance. While the costumes, on the whole, mixed medieval and Renaissance elements filtered through a grimy dystopian aesthetic, Catesby cut a somewhat more modern figure. With his bowler hat, thick glasses, waistcoat and gartered shirtsleeves, he was a mix of Dickensian bookkeeper and steampunk Droog. He was expressionless, laconic, and omnipresent, carrying out Richard’s orders with grim efficiency. He executed Rivers and Hastings with a compressed-air bolt-gun (like that used in the film No Country for Old Men), first courteously seating them in a chair center-stage. When it came to be Buckingham’s turn, the gun had a couple of hissing misfires, protracting the moment painfully before its inevitable conclusion. By contrast, Catesby’s disposal of Anne—smashing her head against the stage wall in immediate response to Richard’s order to “give out/ That Anne my wife is sick and like to die”—was shocking in its sudden violence.
In an original and striking bit of streamlining, Catesby took on the lines of the Scrivener about the warrant for Hastings’ execution. When he asked, “Who is so gross,/ That cannot see this palpable device?/ Yet who’s so bold but says he sees it not?”, he turned and spoke openly to the audience, then peered out into the house, looking around for several seconds as though challenging us to reply. This Brechtian moment seemed to sum up the production’s overall approach to the play: that as bad as leaders like Richard III may be, they come about only when the people allow themselves to be bullied into accepting them.
The views expressed in this post 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.