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Richard III

This Point in Time

Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre, Madison, New Jersey
Saturday, November 5, 2016, D–104&105 (center stalls)
Directed by Paul Mullins

Regular readers of know that I have not posted reviews of many of the productions we've seen the past year, caught up as we've been in the shuffle of this mortal coil. is intended to serve as a record of staged productions and a resource for those who are staging and studying these plays. Therefore, it is my intention to post these backlogged reviews going forward along with new reviews of currently running shows. Revisiting these past productions comes with the benefit of hindsight and the experience of what has occurred in the meantime. So, we'll be applying a bit of that mustard as we catch up on these reviews.

Richard in black shirt and pants kneeling on a table grabs the throat of Hastings standing at one end of the table--he in red dinner jacket and gray leather pants--as Stanley with briefcast and wearing a grey three-piece suit with turtleneck sweater shirt, looks on in consternation. The stairway and wood-paneled wall is int he background.
Richard (Derek WIlson) ambushes Lord Hastings (Ames Adamson) during a council meeting as Lord Stanley (Chris Hietikko) looks on in the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey production of William Shakespeare's Richard III. Below, Queen Margaret (Carol Halstead, left) lectures the Duchess of York (Ellen Fiske) as Queen Elizabeth (Gretchen Hall) listens. Photos by Jerry Dalia, Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey.

Brace yourselves for more productions of William Shakespeare's Richard III this year. Shakespearean scholar Stephen Greenblatt laid the foundation for comparing Donald Trump (being inaugurated as the United States' 45th president at the very moment I'm writing this) to Richard of Gloucester in The New York Times commentary, "Shakespeare Explains the 2016 Election," October 8, 2016. Last year's production of the play at the Almeida Theatre in London, England, and the Richard III adaptation in Toneelgroep Amsterdam's Kings of War reflected the growing fascist sentiment in Europe and the United States, and I know of at least a couple of theater companies that were reconsidering their choices for summer 2017, replacing a planned title with Richard III.

The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey's production of Richard III last fall (which we attended three days before Election Day) was not specifically political in nature—its setting was a modern upscale gangland culture with a film noir edginess to the performances—but it was hard to not hear and see a Trump at work in Richard, deliciously played by Derek Wilson. Nevertheless, the more fascinating character in this production was Sir William Catesby (Sheffield Chastain): fascinating in how and why the character is constructed the way he is and how he reflects in more people—and more dangerously—than does a Richard III.

First, full disclosure: Chastain is a friend of ours, and he was a key reason we squeezed this production into an already crowded schedule on our latest New York City–area visit. That, though, has no bearing on this analysis, which comes down to Director Paul Mullins' determination to cut down and streamline Shakespeare's second-longest play into a two-hour show plus 15-minute intermission. The play suffers from some of his contraction, especially the wholesale deletion of the pivotal scenes in which Richard wins over the London population with Buckingham's carefully staged political theatrics. In their place, the scene in which Buckingham (John Hickok) pleads with Richard is re-imagined as a rehearsal for Richard, a choice eerily similar to the Kings of War staging in which the spin master Buckingham coaches Richard.

On the other hand, Mullins' streamlining combines four characters into the single figure of Catesby. That in itself is not unusual, but in this instance the particular characters that comprise Catesby establish a singular arc for the role: the First Murderer (who offs Clarence), Lovell (who oversees the execution of Hastings), and Tyrrell (who murders the two young princes in the Tower) along with Catesby, whom Shakespeare depicts as a loyal servant to the crown, starting with Edward IV. Though Edward the Prince of Wales becomes Edward V (but not ever officially crowned), Catesby assists in the campaign to instead have the crown transfer to Richard, and Catesby serves Richard as his capable aide de camp all the way to the end at Bosworth Field.

In this production's depiction of modern gangsters, Chastain's Catesby is Richard's primary henchman. He is coolly efficient in murdering Clarence (John Keabler), and his garroting of Hastings (Ames Adamson) in the middle of the council meeting at the Tower is an intense dance of death, the two skittering across the stage, slamming into furniture and walls before Hastings finally succumbs (Rick Sordelet is the fight director, and this sequence along with Richard's and Richmond's extended, amazingly intense duel with swords at the play's end make textbook fight choreography look like child's play by comparison).

It's when Catesby takes on the task of Tyrrell, killing the boys at Richard's order, that the character gets psychologically interesting. Tyrrell has a soliloquy after the murders are done, describing it as "the most arch deed of piteous massacre that ever yet this land was guilty of." I've usually seen Tyrrell portrayed as a pathological sadist (or, in the Almeida production, a pedophile) speaking these lines in a boastful (or lustful) tone. But Catesby has a soul, and Chastain works through the soliloquy with a stream of guilt permeating his lines and a half-empty bottle of booze gripped in his hand. Richard comes on stage and asks, "Kind Catesby [nee Tyrrell in Shakespeare's text], am I happy in thy news?" The word kind carries too much irony for Catesby, but he affirms the murders are done. "But didst thou see them dead?" the paranoid Richard presses, whereupon Catesby replies, "I did, my lord," a response in Chastain's playing that carries the weight of a man who did, indeed, see the young boys dead. Without another word, he meanders off stage for more drinking.

Catesby survives at the end, Chastain looking at Richard's body with an expression of defeat. His king is dead; what next? With a new king anointed, Catesby's future is very much in doubt, whether Richmond decides to execute him or keep him as his loyal henchman. This Catesby's character arc lands on a question of morality vis a vis duty and the choices we make (or, more to the point, our avoiding the strenuous test of making choices) in the name of service.

Although Mullins plays loose with Shakespeare's text in the name of expediency more than thematic consistency, his staging boasts high production values and strong performances. Brittany Vasta's set is a two-story room, the two levels connected by a metal staircase. The upstairs is a stucco hallway with narrow windows, the downstairs is paneled in wood and has simple furniture and a chandelier. Tony Galaska's lighting creates the effect of the sun coming through a window or skylight casting shadows of the stairway railing onto the wall that, with the narrow windows upstairs, evokes a sense of prison and a realm where the shadows are as prominent as the light. Costume Designer Kristin Isola dresses the characters in the hippest of expensive-taste fashion with mostly dark hues, except when King Richard wears a red, three-piece suit for his coronation.

Otherwise, Wilson as Richard is wearing black or brown jeans and leather. He uses a crutch, and his left hand at the end of a crooked arm is always wrapped except when he reveals it in the Tower council scene as evidence of his being the victim of witchcraft. Wilson is a Richard of snarky charm, incredibly engaging whether the person entering his presence reacts to him with undying loyalty, intense distaste, or wary curiosity. Wilson smoothly slides through the fourth wall, as well, to likewise engage the audience. He plays off laughter and other reactions in the auditorium not only during his monologues but when he's conversing with other characters. He's therefore always playing to a public, even in his inner-sanctum moments, as he entwines his victims in his psychological web. When he becomes duplicitously ferocious, as he does with Hastings in the council scene, it ratchets his grip on his power and on our fascination with his character.

His wooing of Lady Anne is entirely believable—even for the feisty-tempered Anne (Amaia Arana) who first meets him with vicious insults and cursing. The scene ends, though, with Richard lovingly kissing her, and she walks off confused (she appears extra-textually with Richard in subsequent court scenes). Richard's later wooing of Queen Elizabeth to hand over her daughter as his subsequent wife is played here as dynamically as I've ever seen it. Gretchen Hall's fiercely brave Elizabeth faces down every weapon in Richard's arsenal: sly charm, conniving logic, brazen lying, and physical assault. The turning point isn't when Richard threatens her with violence or violation, but with simple reality. "In her consists my happiness and thine," he says of Elizabeth's daughter; "without her, follows to this land and me, to thee, herself, and many a Christian soul, death, desolation, ruin and decay. It cannot be avoided but by this; it will not be avoided but by this." In other words, if you don't work with me here, "dear mother," the nation suffers even more, not just you but your daughter and all. For many, the abyss of certain discomfort is often easier to accept than the potential of worse to come, especially when you know that the man and the time is ripe for so much worse.

Elizabeth, of course, is also working with Stanley (Chris Hietikko) to marry her daughter to Richmond (Mike Magliocca). Richard isn't the only duplicitous character in this play; it's just that the audience (in Shakespeare's time as well as ours) tends to see the duplicity of Stanley and Elizabeth as good, and that of Richard and Buckingham as bad. Hastings we can't quite get our hearts around, given that he remains steadfastly loyal to the royal lineage even as he works with Richard to undermine—including executions of—members of Queen Elizabeth's faction. It's his naiveté that makes him seem so tragic. That's especially the issue here as Adamson's Hastings is baffled by Richard's behavior—is he serious as he seems or joking as he says?—while we literally see his murder fast approaching.

All the women in black dresses and clocks, Margaret leaning over and gesturing in the face of the Duchess of York sitting on a chair as Elizabeth kneels next to her.Despite the gangland staging, political machination is at the heart of this production. Really, isn't that true for just about all aspects of life, from national elections and mafia business to workplace interactions and family relations? As King Edward IV (Hietikko) engineers a peace among the factions of his court, in this production the parties involved go along so begrudgingly the moment plays as pure comedy. Adamson's Hastings barely touches the hands of the others as he avows his love for them. The exception to this behavior is Hickok's Buckingham, who warmly welcomes his sometime enemies to his bosom and offers heartfelt love to them without any hint of dissembling. In Hickok's portrayal, this scene illustrates Buckingham's political savvy, opaquely playing all sides while he sees how the landscape evolves.

The final political lesson in this production is delivered by Queen Margaret, the widow of Henry VI, arrestingly played by Carol Halstead. If you are coming to Richard III without benefit of Shakespeare's Henry VI cycle of plays, you might not know how Margaret was the scourge of England before Richard outscourges her. You get some recapitulation of this in Richard III when Margaret shows up in the first court scene and the whole court joins with Richard in condemning her. Halstead plays a wizened Margaret, not just angry at all she's lost but leaning on her experience to foretell where England is heading with Richard. In her last scene in Shakespeare's play (Act IV, Scene 4, with more than an act remaining to the end), she finally determines to return to France and watch as "These English woes will make me smile."

However, in Mullins' staging, Margaret's not done. As Richard and Richmond face each other for the final battle, both standing atop a banquet table, Margaret walks in with two swords and lays them on the table between the once and future kings. This kicks off their climactic duel. I've seen other directors bring Margaret on at the end to proclaim her satisfaction (usually stealing lines as well as attention from Richmond), but this time Margaret's role and her intense silence resonates with the play's theme. She represents experience, the past as it has arrived at its present. She hands the two political antagonists a point in time, and history hangs in the balance.

Eric Minton
January 20, 2017

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