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Richard III could use some new tricks
by Paige M. Travis
English teachers and theater groups always like to talk about the timeless nature of Shakespeare's plays. Forget that they were written before indoor plumbing and cell phones; these plays deal with the universal themes of love, passion, duty, honor, hubris and greed. As Elizabethan audiences understand these concepts, so do we.
But some Shakespeare plays have less timeless appeal than others. Layering complex timelines with royal successions, The Bard's historical plays can be harder to crack than his dramas or comedies, both for players and viewers. While the audiences of his day ate up all that crown-trading, modern American audiences don't have that kind of grasp on (or interest in) English history.
Audiences today need help from theater companies to make Shakespeare's histories relevant and bring out those universal themes we understand and to explain the tangled family trees that we may not. That's why many productions of Shakespeare, on stage and film, are modernized in some way, either in the language, the editing, the time period or the costuming. By taking the play out of its original context and placing it in one that audiences are more familiar withthe gritty urban landscape of Richard Almereyda's recent Hamlet, the Verona Beach Technicolor of Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet or even 1930s London in Richard Loncraine's Richard III with Ian McKellena production can overcome dates and get to the heart of the matter: the feelings and motivations behind the text.
The Tennessee Stage Company could've taken some cues from these updated productions in their current staging of Richard III, the last play of this summer's East Tennessee Shakespeare in the Park double feature, which is staged in the Bijou due to construction in World's Fair Park. Director Jeff Kean plays it straight with mostly-period costumes, a gray castle set and all of the original language, with some cuts to the text. No surprises here, just traditional Shakespeare, and that's a problem. The actorsmany of Knoxville's bestseemed lost in this play, and I imagine that many of the audience members were as well. I knew what was happening the entire time, but I never felt guided by the players or by the direction into any particular emotions.
That could be because the main character is a despicable liar, played with hulking bravado by TSC veteran Mark Creter. From the very beginning, we know Richard's game plan: to take the crown by manipulating, lying to and killing any man, woman or child in his way.
I know we're not necessarily supposed to like the main character of every single play, book or film ever made. Writers and directors challenge us to understand a complex character by revealing his inner doubts and motivations. I don't have to like Richard, but I want to try to understand him.
We could sympathize with Richard because he has a terrible relationship with his mother, who curses him and tells him to his face that she wishes she'd killed him in her womb. Harsh. Or we could consider his deformity. He's been ridiculed all his life, and no beautiful woman will ever love him. He deserves sympathy, right? Actually, no. In the hands of Kean and Creter, Richard III is very nearly soulless. He's bad, but that's it, which makes him a fairly one-sided character. Shakespeare wrote RIII as an unrepentant, evil, murderous villain with unknown motivations. If The Bard wasn't interested in making Richard likable or complex, it's up to the actors and director to give him motivation and lend viewers a deeper understanding of him.
As Richard carries out his evil plans, the rest of the cast falls into his plot like lambs to the slaughter. A whole cast of capable and, at times, stirring actors (particularly Amy Hubbard as the bereaved Queen Elizabeth and David Brian Alley as the ill-fated Clarence) bring life to these hapless dopes who end up being captured in Richard's web of death. Internal conflict and remorse make characters interesting. Buckingham (Michael Golebiewski) helps Richard achieve his dastardly goals and ends up being rewarded with death. Queen Margaret (Pam Hurley) is mad, in both senses of the word, after being exiled. Richard doesn't feel doubt or regret or insane passion. Maybe that's admirable in some way, but his lack of these human traits made him less riveting, despite Creter's facility with the role.
This brings me back to the idea of adaptation. Reinterpreting Richard III would be a risk, but such risks are required if we're going to keep performing and attending Shakespeare's plays in the 21st century. Modern costumes and a change of historical milieu can help tear away the trappings of obtuse history and add a layer of understanding between players and the viewers.
Picture this: Richard III is a scrawny kid who dreams of being quarterback for his high school football team. After three years of warming the bench, Ricky's had enoughhe plans to take out everybody in between him and that coveted spot under center. Now we have an underdog who earns our respect, if not our sympathies, and has clear motivations that hold a universal meaning to us and the players. Am I suggesting that the cast of RIII be portrayed as a high school football team? Maybe. It's crazy, but it just might work to give the actors some focused direction and audiences a greater sense of Richard's motivation.
Purists may hate adapting Shakespeare to modern settings, that it's a "dumbing down" in the tradition of Ten Things I Hate About You. But the Tennessee Stage Companywhich produces the Shakespeare festivalhas proven time and again it can do traditional Shakespeare. Its next challengefor players and audiencesis to bring deeper meaning and relevance to Shakespeare's more antiquated plays. That might mean teaching some old dogs new tricks.
August 17, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 33
© 2000 Metro Pulse