Tuesday, February 7, 2012

these tell-tale women: Richard III @ BAM 2.5.12

Across the stage hangs a curtain and one word projected onto it, Now. It's the first word of the play, of course, "Now is the winter of our discontent...", but it foregrounds the past, marks the beginning of the play as a turning point in a story that has been going on for long years and seven plays previous. All these things have happened, and now... A word that points in both directions. "Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York."

But if you're coming in here, at the point where it seems like the wars are all done, you've missed all the context. "...This son of York," he says, and he points over his shoulder to the still image in the newsreel he's turned his back on. He's wearing a paper crown from a cracker and he's armed with a noisemaker. Woohoo. "Grim visag'd War hath smoothed his wrinkled front..." Then he gets up from his chair.

Arduously. He's got a brace on his left leg, which, as it is, is twisted near half way out of its socket. His spine's a mess, too, and his left hand. He uses a cane, it seems to give him extra limbs and moves him like a malevolent insect. He leans on irony a bit too much. Well, actually, more sarcasm. You wonder why anyone would believe him. Sometimes you know they don't,that they're just following form and hoping it'll all come right in the end. Odds aren't good.

If there's an overarching theme to this production, it's the notion of spin, of manipulation of the public image, starting with newsreel footage of King Edward triumphant. Later the focal point of the play will be Richard's engineering of his accession to the crown, which is done via live link, a script, and an audience primed by the Duke of Buckingham (Chuk Iwuji) -- half motivational speaker, half televangelist, all Boar Party operative -- to respond in a particular way. Give the people what they think they want, and you will get what you think you want.

And after that, who cares what anybody thinks. "Thus high, by thy advice and thy assistance, is King Richard seated," says Richard, addressing not Buckingham (as the text would indicate) but us, the audience, who have been his co-conspirators from the beginning. Now, and briefly, confident in his position, Richard announces his new queen's impending death as she sits by, gazing catatonically into the middle distance.

She's lost already, but he won her quick, and not altogether convincingly. "What though I kill'd her husband and her father...", but this is one of the hardest scenes in Shakespeare to manage, you either surf the subtleties, or skim them and shoot for as much unsettling comedy as you can squeeze out of this abrupt, unlikely situation. Actually there are a lot of scenes in the play like that, and Mendes chooses the latter strategy for nearly all of them. I'm not sure whether that indicates lack of commitment or a directorial aim that doesn't quite come off -- like if the production of what is essentially an ensemble piece is built around the title character, and everyone else ends up being secondary.

If that's the case, what's arresting is how much that spotlight throws the women's shadows long: Lady Anne, forced to choose; Queen Elizabeth, forced to lose; the old Duchess, who has seen it all before; and Queen Margaret, like a force of nature, who, seeing it all coming, brings it all into being, cracking bones together like the summoning of war, marking an X on every doorway shut by Richard's bloody policy, until there's only one way out.

Of these tell-tale women, then, Maureen Anderman's old Duchess had the truly hair-raising moment, when she lays a mother's curse on her tainted offspring to his face, and he withers a little bit more under its vitriol: "Bloody thou art and bloody will be thy end; Shame serves thy life and doth thy death attend." There's no more final casting off than this. Thanks, ma.

Elizabeth Woodville, Edward's Queen, probably has the most to do in this play -- Margaret might get the hot speeches, but her course is set. Elizabeth has to manage the slow devolution of her power, and all that entails, including the death of her husband, the murder of her sons, and the targeting of her daughter, in which she is forced to collude. Haydn Gwynne was entirely up to the task.

When it comes to Margaret of Anjou, we're always glad when she's there at all. She has the sharpest poetry to speak, and yet it's not unknown for the role to be eliminated altogether. (As witness the Ian McKellen film version, though here they gave at least some of her lines to Maggie Smith -- those who like her as the Dowager Countess of Grantham should check her out as the Dowager Duchess of York, paragon of badass.) And it's a strange role, no question. What is she still doing there, wandering in among the squabbling victors so long after her own defeat? It can be tough to bring any kind of coherent answer to that question.

Mendes solves it by making her inhabit two worlds at once -- on the one hand, a kind of spirit world where she can observe and move and serve as the conduit of fate; and on the other, when she needs to, materialize and speechify. Gemma Jones, in old army greatcoat, tarnish-crowned and strega-headed, walks the fine line this production gives her and makes it believable, in a way most Margarets aren't though given less to do.

As Lady Anne, Annabel Scholey has the trickiest scene in the play and if, as stated above, it doesn't quite come off, the fault doesn't lie with her. She puts up a serious fight to win that scene, but she never gets the space to work out Anne's transformation of conviction in any kind of reasonable way. In spite of that, she holds her own against a monster, even as the character she plays is caving in to his.

As physically demanding as Sam Mendes' production makes the title role -- when at the end the slaughtered Boar is hoisted up, feet first, like so much bacon to exsanguinate, after three hours of watching him, as they say in Thomas Hardy, "bent round all twisty-ways", it's sort of a relief to see him get in a good stretch -- as physically demanding as it is, Kevin Spacey takes it all at an intense clip from the starting gate. I'm not sure why, and I'm not sure it altogether works, but it's certainly entertaining to watch. In short, don't hope for subtlety, this one's all about the fireworks.


  1. Ah, great review. What's the time Mendes aimed for, contemporary generalissimos?

    Love the drums, wonder why we don't see more visceral, pagan Shakespeare more often...

  2. Pretty much. Generic Fascism tends to be the default mode with this play. I wonder if there's now any other way to represent Evil as a political operative.

    RSC's Winter's Tale had a waaaay pagan mummers' play...but then it's a mummers' play, so that isn't really a stretch. But yes, there'd be some fine opportunities to jazz things up in that way.

  3. The fact that the possible embodiments of evil in our time are more clean and eye-friendly, mediated multiple times via other agents, better dressed, better PR'd than the Richard caricature does pose some difficulty for the staging of this play.

  4. Though you might present Richmond that way and play one trope off against the other.