Since the era of photography, stylized, occasionally romanticized or generous-with-the-truth portraits and statues of world leaders, it’s hard to find a matinée idol amongst the world’s evil tyrants (Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini—more recently Milosevic, Bin Laden, Gaddafi, Bashar Al-Assad). The old adage “if looks could kill” generally refers to a momentary fit of anger silently burned into the instigator of that rage by the “wounded” target. More often than not, the penetrating stare morphs into quiet resignation or devastating embarrassment if it’s discovered to be unfounded.
Q. What could happen if a misshapen, ugly being whose “looks” ensure a life of isolation, mockery or saccharine pity also has the potential to seize considerable power? A. The awful birth of Richard, Duke of Gloucester whose unbridled ambition coupled with greedy confederates and do-nothing colleagues unleashed a tsunami of blood all the way to becoming King of England.
In William Shakespeare’s hands, the history of Richard’s throne grab is one of the most masterful tales of evil incarnate ever told. At this year’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s production, the drama is turned up several notches higher by casting Seana McKenna in the highly coveted title role.
That decision is an artistic gamble that has paid off in spades.
Director Miles Potter wisely decided to delay the opening soliloquy and one of world’s best-known speeches (“Now is the winter of our discontent”) by first greeting the audience with a collage of Richard, Duke of Gloucester’s fellow courtiers and relatives—eight of whom would meet their deaths before the final curtain. Initially surprising, it proved a master stroke of stagecraft, displaying a gaggle of beautiful people before letting the deformed, uncaring monster come into view.
From McKenna’s first entrance, it was evident that a great night of theatre lay ahead. Intriguingly, gender issues were all but lost. Sporting a Hunchback of Notre-Dame stump, long stringy hair with a balding crown, a semi-useful arm and a wicked witch nose, Richard’s testosterone level seemed as regular as any man’s. The somewhat husky, exceedingly rye delivery also had a predominantly masculine quality, but was slightly infused with the wily logic that cunning females employ to twist hapless men around their fingers. In short, this Richard was given the best/worst (depending how one identifies with the dominant character) of both sexes to telling effect.
McKenna was an absolutely marvellous concoction of Dr. Death (“off with his head”—and meaning it—seemingly as common in speech as “by your leave”) and Don Juan (incredibly seducing the women made widows by, first, his own murderous hands, then deadly commands). Only on rare occasions was the female card played: a couple of times securing the requisite laugh—so very necessary as the body count of old and young alike grew—before a quick peck (expected) with the wooed-herself Queen Elizabeth turned into a full-on kiss. The room went suddenly startled just as surely as the reality of a same-sex royal coupling momentarily stripped bare the male façade. This stunning moment magically encapsulated the truly endless possibilities that first-class thespians and directors employ when bringing their singular skills and vision to bear on “well-known” work. Merci mille fois!
The “real” women in the play are also well served. Martha Henry as Queen Margaret (also widowed thanks to Richard) delivers one of the most damning, searing curses yet heard. Little wonder the gods responded in kind, bringing her terrible prophesies to unrepentant fruition. The Duchess of York’s resigned stoicism is rendered most convincingly by Roberta Maxwell. Widowed, wooed then wasted by Richard, Bethany Jillard makes for a helplessly radiant Lady Anne, forced by tradition and duty into marriage with the very man who slew her husband. In the same vein, Yanna McIntosh is appropriately regal, angry then pathetically beguiled as Richard worms his way to the throne.
The men sent to their deaths (notably Wayne Best, whose late-in-the-carnage scruples only assure his beheading) are shown to understand how the game is played and accept their lot with dignity. The two young boys (Prince Edward, Teddy Gough; Richard, Duke of York, Jeremy Harttrup: both showing early promise in their brief roles) are, mercifully, dispatched offstage. Richard’s henchmen (none better than Sean Arbuckle as the conscience-free Sir William Catesby) fall under their master’s spell, heady with the promise of backing the unscrupulous monarch.
Of course, not everything goes the tyrant’s way. Rather than U.N. sanctions or NATO sorties, the forces of good (led by the roundtable-like Earl of Richmond—Gareth Potter) do battle with evil face-to-face on the field.
The closing sequences are brilliantly staged by Miles Potter, incorporating the revenge of the dead with a slow-motion battle that adds considerably to the “otherworldness” of a production that finds extra truth in the original text, even as unexpected casting transcends the female/male divide, reminding one and all of just what horrors can be unleashed when willfull blindness reaches epidemic proportions.
Look no further than Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Rwanda, Columbia, Congo … JWR