It’s been a busy year for Richard III. Not only have the RSC and now the Globe exhumed him live onstage, but what may be his actual remains have been unearthed in a Leicester car park. With the Tobacco Factory and Nottingham Playhouse due to stage Shakespeare’s play in 2013, the play has entered a very specific moment that is, perhaps, inextricable from notions of history and originality, and it will be fascinating to see if the diagnosis of the new skeleton (a spinal disorder rather than a hunchback?) translates into stage practice, symptomatic of the easy equivalence assumed between Shakespeare’s character and the historical king.
It is interesting in this context that the Globe’s 2012 season closes with a long overdue return to Original Practices. As outlined in Farah Karim-Cooper and Christie Carson’s excellent collection on the Globe, OP is not a recreation of how an actual Globe production might have looked, but rather an umbrella term for a series of performative experiments that capture aspects of the conditions of an original production. This runs obvious risks of tokenism and incongruity; the Globe’s version of OP retains an all-male cast, facial make-up, original instruments and a style of playing that makes thorough use of the platea and audience interaction, but retains such modern concepts as intervals, colour-blind casting, integrated rehearsal and stewards who shush ‘inappropriate’ audience interaction. Nonetheless, under the direction of Tim Carroll and the company leadership of former Globe Artistic Director Mark Rylance, OP offered a way into a text that was as exposed as the initial sight of actors dressing in the tiring house, whose boards were initially removed. Revealing the text in its gloriously participatory environment, the OP company created a truly innovative version of Richard III that broke decisively with its famous predecessors.
Rylance’s Richard was, unsurprisingly, central. He offered a brave, extraordinarily physical performance that, in addition to the withered left hand that rested throughout on his chest, imagined Richard as the survivor of a stroke, paralysed down his left side including his face, where a lazy sloping mouth forced his words into a childlike gabble and drawl. Deprived of the ability to articulate with nuance and inflection, Richard was continually underestimated on account of his simple appearance, most notably by Paul Chahidi’s Hastings, whose suggestion that no man could less hide his true feelings took on particular resonance as a result. Yet the most innovative aspect of Rylance’s performance was that Richard was, in fact, something of a simpleton. His basic demeanour, whether with other characters or in his continual interactions with the audience, was one of delight and laughter, continually excited by the challenges and possibilities offered him. Far from Olivier’s evil genius, Rylance’s Richard was an opportunist, a crude chancer whose simple actions of cause and effect cut like a knife through the more intelligent – and therefore much slower – machinations of the courtiers.
While a difficult reading to initially come to terms with, the force of it came across especially in the coronation scene and the subsequent reports of messengers. Richard’s confusion, his calls for people who were standing next to him and his goldfish-like memory were here natural progressions of his mental deterioration throughout, prepared for by his foolish babbling in front of his peers and his enthusiastic confusion. We were reminded of how dependent Shakespeare’s Richard is on Buckingham, Catesby, Hastings and his other underlings, all of whom (especially Roger Lloyd-Pack’s Machiavellian Buckingham) felt that they alone understood Richard and could control him, and all of whom ultimately underestimated him. Richard may not have been intelligent but his force and energy necessitated the ability to direct him, and Rylance brilliantly captured the about-turns which floored his hitherto unsuspecting minions.
Richard’s cleverness-in-simplicity came across most strongly in two set-piece sequences. During the calls for Richard to take the crown, with the Globe audience whipped up by onstage supporters, Richard shook and wailed between two priests while stood in the gallery space (occupied, at the sides, by paying spectators) and offered an unconvincingly hammy performance of contrition and desperation as he shouted for Buckingham to return. More powerful was a riveting coronation scene. Richard sat on a central throne while Johnny Flynn’s tall, troubled Anne stood next to him, her hand held aloft by him. Richard took no trouble to disguise his orders to Buckingham and Tyrrell from his wife, who listened in open-mouthed horror, staring straight ahead, as the childrens’ murder was ordered. She went into a trance, during which Richard waved his hands in front of her face. Still taking no trouble to disguise his voice, he gave his orders to Catesby to report her death, then turned to her and gently informed her that he must marry Elizabeth in order to secure his throne. The tenderness of the fool came across with extraordinary effect here, Richard apparently imploring Anne to understand his need to be rid of her, and patting her on the hand while he did so.
The women were universally strong, all costumed in severe Elizabethan garb and white face make-up, and played deadly seriously. Anne was defined by poise and careful decorum, breaking it only to spit in Richard’s face, yet ultimately overtaken by his quiet, sincere pleas. Against this was set the dynamic energy of Samuel Barnett’s Elizabeth, who scurried around the stage and offered barked defiance of Richard throughout. Elizabeth was a powerful presence who refused to be beaten on any score, even when trapped by Richard and forced to promise her daughter. Deprived of words, Elizabeth took power back in a rather shocking (and perhaps unnecessary) coup: on taking Richard’s gentle kiss to deliver to her daughter, she leaned in and extracted from him a forceful snog, then stood, gathered herself and marched out with her head held high. Amid the whooping of the crowd, Richard showed a rare anger at his control being usurped, snarling at the audience. Despite an unusually full text (including the plea to King Edward for the reprieve of a servant), Margaret was cut; but her absence was made up for by James Garnon’s gnarled, acerbic Duchess of York, an expressive and bitter presence who took pleasure in wresting attention from her wayward son.
The audience interaction throughout was thorough, with Richard constantly appealing to the crowd and Rylance responding to laughter, catcalls and groans with no break in his stride. His uncertain and hesitant vocal delivery allowed him to treat the crowd as if a constant, uncontrollable commentator on his actions, that he deferred to while also attempting to win over. His shrieks of joy after winning Anne were those of a boastful child, while at other moments he strove for approval. Other actors worked the crowd in different ways: Jethro Skinner’s Second Murderer was particularly amusing in appealing to the audience during his crisis of guilt, while Peter Hamilton Dyer’s impressive Catesby shared knowing asides with the audience while carrying out Richard’s plans and ran events from the side. Yet it was Catesby who was most aware of Richard’s mental decline, sharing worried looks with both other characters and with the crowd as Richard’s control over events slowly slid away.
The joy of the production was in language, in a remarkably full text that relied on its words rather than on extensive visuals. Full time and respect was given to major set pieces such as Clarence’s dream, given chilling life by Liam Brennan. Yet the breakdown of language was also a key motif, not only in Richard’s stutterings but most powerful in the collapse of Colin Hurley’s King Edward, words and phrases shouted out as his body convulsed and was eventually supported offstage. The formal blocking of the piece made the most of the play’s rhetoric and verbal exchange, with the debates between Richard and Elizabeth a particular highlight of argumentation, but the two young boys playing the princes also being allowed a chance to shine. Richard’s gradual loss of control of language thus also became a detachment from the world of the play, separating his ability to relate to other characters from his physical positioning among them. The pleasures of a nearly full text also allowed oft-neglected characters such as Grey and Dorset to become more prominent, the family relationships and histories more apparent in this clear reading than they are often allowed to be.
What finally came through, though, was a surprising amount of sympathy for Richard. As his body and mind deteriorated, so too did his grasp of stage space falter. From the first appearance of Richmond (Garnon again), Richard’s physical space was usurped, the two sharing a camp bedroom of which Richmond took the bed while Richard slept in a chair. The ghosts, clad in white sheets, appeared in the central stage door, addressing the two men in turn without coming forward. However, during the battle they assumed a much more prominent role, appearing in full costume and intervening in turn to either shield Richmond or distract Richard at key moments. Richard’s dissociation from the physical world was complete as Anne appeared and Richard prostrated himself before her, holding up his sword for her as he had done earlier, kneeling and exposing his breast. It was Richmond who took the sword though and as Richard knelt, pathetically confused, Richmond forced the sword through a chink in his armour and sent him crashing to the floor.
This bold, inventive reading of the play may not have been strictly ‘original practice’, but it was thoroughly original, turning Richard into a man out of time and place, driven by the world around him but also freed from its constraints. Rylance’s tour de force performance breathed extraordinary new life into a figure perhaps too familiar, but whose real and theatrical history is even now being rewritten by the excavations of both archaeologists and textually literature actors. A stunning return to the Globe for both Carroll and Rylance, as well as the unveiling of the Globe’s finest ensemble in many years.