Year of Shakespeare: Richard III at the RSCHistoryYear of Shakespeare

  • PeterJSmith

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.


Richard III, Royal Shakespeare Company, dir. by Roxana Silbert, 10 May 2012 at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

By Peter J Smith, Nottingham Trent University

Will I be in trouble for sounding sexist?  Will a string of comments below brand me an unreconstructed patriarch?  Oh well, here goes…  I knew – before opening my programme (which I always do post-show) – that the director of this production was female.  Before you get cross, let me explain: in the history plays, Shakespeare doesn’t give his female characters much to do.  Glendower’s daughter speaks no English; Kate, Hotspur’s wife, is cruelly sent-up; Princess Catherine’s English lesson results in her becoming a comic butt as she accidentally pronounces a series of slang obscenities and Quickly and Tearsheet personify the disposable playthings of the customers at the Boar’s Head.  But Richard III is the exception.  The vehement exchanges between Elizabeth Woodville and Richard, the protracted mourning of the three queens, the anti-maternal denunciation of the Duchess of York, the prominence of Lady Anne and the empress-like authority of the malevolent matriarch, Queen Margaret, mean that this is no country for old men, or young ones, come to that.

Richard’s misogyny may indicate his own masculine anxieties about female government or, were one to become psychoanalytical about it, fears of female sexuality (exacerbated by his own deformity since, as he reminds us, he is not “shaped for sportive tricks” (I.1.14)), but it is a misogyny not shared by the play, unlike the other history plays.  When Richard dismisses Elizabeth with “Relenting fool, and shallow, changing woman” (IV.4.362), we know he is wrong about her.  As the young Elizabeth’s marriage to Richmond makes clear, her mother was simply protecting both herself and her daughter in appearing to assent.  Women in Richard III are much smarter than Richard gives them credit for.

This production made sure that the play’s power was continually articulated by its women.  Most prominent here was Paola Dionisotti’s Margaret.  In the story of the play Margaret has returned from banishment in France to gloat over the demise of her political opponents.  In this production she seemed to have come back from the underworld, her first entrance was accompanied by an eerie shift to cold blue lights and her clunky army boots and cape / jacket suggested both military puissance and vampiric malice.  As she cursed those around her, she stamped her foot and the naked light bulbs above her momentarily brightened as though mystically in sympathy with her.  Dionisotti’s adamant pronouncements were simply chilling: “Think that thy babes were sweeter than they were, / And he that slew them fouler than he is” (IV.4.120-1).

Siobhan Redmond’s Elizabeth Woodville was another locus of female power.  There was no brittle panic about her exchanges with Richard (contrast Richard Loncraine’s film which has Annette Bening’s Queen choking back tears over the dinner table); rather, she weighed into him, giving as good as she got.  Even Lady Anne (Pippa Nixon) was not seduced by Richard but flattened by the speed of his stichomythian returns.

Against this female intelligence and smouldering rage, Jonjo O’Neill’s Richard and Brian Ferguson’s Buckingham were mostly ineffectual: the world of masculine politics was parodied.  As Catesby (Alex Waldmann) stage-managed the peculiar mock-alarm of III.5 he, Richard and Buckingham, ran around the set like extras from a Whitehall farce.  Interpolated instructions and exclamations sent up the whole sequence.  We heard Catesby from shouting “not yet, not yet” as he scripted various entrances and someone ran into an offstage object and let out a sudden “Ouch!”

From the beginning this protagonist was being sent up.  Richard spoke of the plots he had laid against Clarence and a heavy pizzicato on the strings turned him into a pantomime villain.  As he and Buckingham welcomed the Prince to London in III.1 they hurled him around the stage in a throne with castors on it, undermining his royal entry as a dormitory prank.  It might be that O’Neill’s performance was simply under-powered – it certainly failed to connect with the audience – but, more generously, it might have been a deliberate strategy to allow the play’s female characters not to be overwhelmed by what is usually shown to be Richard’s machiavellian brilliance.  As he sat on an umpire’s chair, facing upstage, he conversed over his shoulder with Buckingham and then Tyrrel (Oscar Pearce) about disposing of the princes.  These whispered asides served only to turn his double infanticide into a bit of rugby-club mischief.

But it was in the inclusion of two female ghost roles that the production’s feminist aesthetic became clumsy.  As Mark Jax’s Edward IV sat on his throne he was flanked by Queen Elizabeth and Mistress Shore (Susie Trayling) who appeared later, in surprised dishabille, as Hastings’s lover following their untimely waking (III.2).  This I have seen before and is acceptable, if distracting, but the entrance of Elizabeth of York who ran on to embrace and kiss the victorious Richmond during his final speech was just intrusive.  A feminist Richard III makes, as I have suggested, complete sense but the fortunate outcome’s reliance on a young princess does not call for her physical presence and such crude sign-posting spoilt, at the final hurdle, a production of considerable force.

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Author: PeterJSmith

Peter is Reader in Renaissance Literature at Nottingham Trent University. His publications include Social Shakespeare: Aspects of Renaissance Dramaturgy and Contemporary Society and Hamlet: Theory in Practice. He is UK correspondent of Cahiers Elisabéthains and in 2007 he co-edited a special number of the journal dedicated to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Complete Works Festival.