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Richard III

Getting at the Heart of a True Tragedy

American Shakespeare Center, Blackfriars Playhouse, Staunton, Va.
Saturday, January 21, 2012, D–5&6 (center stalls)
Actors’ Renaissance Season

Benjamin Curns in uniform as Richard III
Benjamin Curns as Richard in Henry VI, Part Three. Photo by Tommy Thompson, American Shakespeare Center.

I’ve seen more great, indelible portrayals of Richard III than any other Shakespearean character. Anthony Sher’s crutches, Ian McKellen’s glove, and Frank Britton’s waking from his nightmares were the ghosts of my memories that Benjamin Curns’ portrayal in this American Shakespeare Center production went up against. Not only that, as I took in Curns’ turn as the famous hunchback, I was already anticipating Kevin Spacey’s reportedly scene-chewing portrayal we’ll be seeing in New York two weeks hence.

With no scenery to chew at the Blackfriars Playhouse, Curns relied wholly on the text and his fellow actors and gave a performance of such overwhelming depth it set a new benchmark for any Richards who come hereafter. Richard’s theatrical infamy rests on his wresting the throne from everybody else in line to it. Curns played the whole arc of Richard’s story with unceasing intensity and consistent attention to textual detail, from his sinisterly comic rise to the crown through his precarious grip on power at the center of the play to his psychological unhinging in an Act V performance that had us hanging on his every word. It was a reading that reminded us that the first Quarto edition of this play is called The Tragedy of King Richard the Third: Curns’ Richard was a tragic hero in the classic meaning.

Curns’ talent was only one-half the equation to this great portrayal. The rest was made up by the circumstances of this particular production.

As part of the Blackfriars’ annual Actors’ Renaissance Season, the company of actors worked without directors to mount the play with no more than a week’s worth of rehearsals and using only their cue scripts—an attempt to replicate the method of production Shakespeare’s company used along with the manner of Shakespeare’s staging practices. A replica of Shakespeare’s indoor theater, the Blackfriars uses universal lighting and no electronic or digital effects in a playhouse that has the audience hemmed in on all sides and even sitting on the stage. The actors also had to costume themselves, and for the most part they used modern dress.

Over the past three Ren Seasons the ASC presented the three Henry VI plays, of which Richard III is the last sequel, the tetralogy’s fourth installment. Curns played Richard, Duke of Gloucester, in Parts Two (when he first appears) and Three, and his growth in the character as chronicled by Shakespeare surely informed Curns' portrayal in Richard III. A directorless production also means the actors—individually and collectively—not only have no director’s conceptual vision of the play, they don’t have time themselves to conceptualize. Curns’ triumph, then, is in direct partnership with Shakespeare (dare I say his Richard may be the purest since Richard Burbage played it originally? Yes, I do dare say it).

Final piece of the formula was a company matching Curns in skill and talent. Twelve actors we’ve individually lauded in many reviews on all performing at the highest level in this production. Given to their own intellects and understanding of Shakespeare they brought many interesting readings to parts we’ve come to take for granted: Aidan O’Reilly as Clarence calmly debating with his murderers; Daniel Kennedy as Hastings, so self-confident he couldn’t see the hovering halberds in the expressions of Buckingham and Catesby (Chris Johnston) during the coronation council; Jeremy West as Stanley, seeming weak-kneed in Richard’s company but displaying a commanding assurance around Richmond (Gregory Jon Phelps).

René Thornton Jr. took a particularly bold approach to Buckingham. Upon warily scoping out the political landscape and latching onto Richard, Thornton's Buckingham served as Richard’s mentor in both political machinations and behavior. His maniacal manipulation of the London Mayor and citizens was more wildly borne than anything Curns did as Richard. Buckingham seemed to have no idea he was grooming a cobra, so when he asked for his rewards and Curns’ hissed “I’m not in the giving vein today," his shock was quickly set aside with the understanding that venomed fangs were about to strike. As we had grown fond of the two characters’ partnership, this sudden, dangerous fissure was an arresting moment accomplished by two actors playing in top form.

Allison Glenzer continued her role as Queen Elizabeth from her first brief appearance last year in Henry VI, Part Three. In Richard she was a worried queen in her first scenes, a wounded widow upon Edward's death, and a mourning mother after the princes’ disappearance from the Tower. All the while, though, she was a Machiavellian match to Richard, and when he tried to convince her to agree to a marriage between him and her daughter, Glenzer's Elizabeth responded with a psychological dance, unchecking her raw emotions and loathing of Richard while considering her best path to safety and, perhaps, a return to power. This scene is the pivotal point in the play as Richard is finally checked in his tracks, and Curns and Glenzer raged back and forth across the stage in their intense verbal combat.

Sarah Fallon returned in her fourth incarnation as Margaret, Henry VI’s widowed queen. Having witnessed this powerful and vain woman the past three years, we were shocked, once we realized it was Margaret, by her first appearance in Richard III: barefoot and wearing a ragged all-black dress, and with bedraggled hair, pale face, and hollow eyes, she looked like a ghost. This specter, though, was a pain-spewing reminder that the Wars of the Roses was not yet done. She issued her curses from the depths of a woman who had experienced the murders of her son, husband, and lover in the previous two plays, as well as her own precipitous fall from the height of power to the depths of poverty. Such was her venom and effect on Richard that he resorted to spitting a mouthful of wine in her face resulting in an audible audience gasp that was three plays over three years in the making.

Fallon also played young Edward, Prince of Wales, as an obese boy chewing on Twizzles. Brandi Rhome played the other young prince, Richard, Duke of York, carrying a stuffed lion. When John Harrell’s Tyrrel later walked on stage carrying the plush lion and chewing on a Twizzle, the audience audibly expressed its discomforting understanding that the young boys had been murdered, a moment arrived at by three actors pooling their creativity and grasp of their individual characters (remember, they each were working only with their own cue scripts—their lines plus the line preceding theirs—instead of a whole book). This manner of putting together a play is not only a mark of the professionalism that readily shows in the talent we see on stage, it also makes the play seem more revelatory as characters—or, rather, the actors playing the characters—have to react to their changing situations: not just a stage play but scripted lives being lived.

Curns provided such revelatory moments in his one portrayal from beginning to end. In his opening soliloquy he seemed to revel in the fact of his deformity, but his inner bitterness peeked through in the catch of his voice that came with the dogs barking at him “as I—halt by them.” He seemed to want to say “stride” or even “walk,” but paused to find the word halt as the more accurate descriptor. He used his self-disdain as the engine for his drive to his coronation, displaying cleverness, cynicism, wit, power of personality, and daring maneuvering (his wooing of Rhome’s Anne was a ledge-walking performance). His lip-smacking scheming earned genuine laughs from an incredulous audience. The crown in his grasp, however, his engine sputtered as he suddenly became uncertain, confused, and paranoid, his manipulative abilities faltering, starting with Buckingham’s pause at the suggestion of killing the princes and concluding with Elizabeth’s defiance in wooing her to be his mother-in-law. Even the audience started rooting against him.

The bookend to Curns’ opening soliloquy was his final soliloquy after Richard awoke from the dreams that haunted him on the eve of Bosworth. “Alack, I love myself” he said, and even he could tell this was not said with conviction. “Alas, I rather hate myself for hateful deeds committed by myself! I am a villain: yet, I lie, I am not. Fool, of thyself speak well: fool, do not flatter.” This was not a Richard trying to tamp down a sudden sense of conscience; this was a man who had never gotten beyond his crippled self-image. Curns delivered these lines as if two different Richards were talking, not schizophrenic but, as he was in the opening soliloquy but more obviously so, a man trying to bridge the schism between his desired self and his true self. Body language in the audience suggested many were feeling compassion for him.

After this moment the production took its only stumble. The pep talks by Richmond and Richard were gloriously given, but immediately upon giving his speech Richard was beset by Richmond and two other enemy soldiers. Curns turned to the audience and delivered with his old sly cockiness, "A horse. A horse. My kingdom for a horse." It was the only time that Curns stepped off the path the text had been providing him, and whatever metaphor was intended in that staging was lost on me. The combat between Richmond and Richard that immediately followed, however, made all the sense in the world, a drawn out, no-quarter fight that brought Shakespeare's War of the Roses cycle to an emphatic close.

In the second two Henry VI plays Richard considered the crown to be his heaven, the only way he could attain a life worth living given not only the body he was “cursed” with but also the contempt others, including his own mother, had for him. Richard overcame incredibly long odds to achieve the crown, not the least of which was an impaired gait, a withered arm, and hand black as decay. His tragedy was that while he achieved his goal, in the end he fell to the one enemy he could never defeat: his own self-contempt.

Eric Minton
January 26, 2012

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