I’ve seen Richard III on stage more often than I have any other play.
I don’t mean I’ve seen more different productions of it than any other – that would probably be Much Ado About Nothing – and if the Henry VIs were combined into one they would knock it away, I saw the RSC’s versions so many times in Stratford and London in 2006-2008.
When I was 19, I saw one production of Richard III 21 times. It starred James Newcomb as Richard and Robin Goodrin Nordli as Margaret, and was one of the clearest, most coherent and chilling works of theatre I have ever experienced. I can remember every beat, every line reading, every inflection and every sound effect. Even now, the dramaturgical changes that production made seem to make the original play flow oddly when I encounter it. The Citizens, for example, were cut, and now I always find them shocking intruders. Margaret entered to repeat her doomsaying prophesies over the nearly dead bodies of Richard’s victims, whom she cursed, and every production I see without her re-entrances seems incomplete. (I’m pleased to report she did this in the Globe to Globe performance.)
The National Theatre of China (NTC) put on a very straight production, sticking more closely to the text than any production I’ve seen at Globe to Globe so far. One reason for this might just be that the text is very good. Unlike Troilus and Cressida and Pericles, it doesn’t need to be tweaked or played with. Another is that, unlike Twelfth Night, Richard III doesn’t have a tremendous amount of flexibility. It’s a tightly focused, brilliant play – that’s why I saw the same production 21 times – but it’s a tightly focused, brilliant play, rather than hiding four or five potential plays for the performers to choose from, as Twelfth Night does.
Dominic Dromgoole, the Globe’s artistic director, jumped on stage before the show to let us know that a cargo ship carrying “glorious” costumes and props had not arrived in time for the performances, and the costumes the actors were wearing had been put together by the Globe in house. They were simple but effective: the yellow robe of kingship changed hands from Edward to Richard to Richmond, and Anne and Margaret wore elegant black robes of mourning. The murderers (two comic acrobats borrowed from Chinese opera) wore red gloves after killing the princes in the Tower (here reduced to just the Prince of Wales, and frankly not much of a loss), which Richard later donned for the final scenes.
The performance began with three witches delivering the prophecy that the reigning King Edward IV would be overthrown by a man whose name begins with G. The prophecy is canonical, but the three witches are lifted from another play (the artistic director confessed in an interview that his first choice had been Macbeth). They worked anyway. Richard III is an eerie play, half magical, half realpolitik. Richard manoeuvres his way to the throne with tactics modern politicians can envy, while behind him the folk tale crone Queen Margaret croaks doom and sees every one of her deadly prophesies fulfilled. It straddles style and naturalism, with chants and rhymes breaking against very contemporary jokes and speech patterns.
The NTC production successfully bridged this gap as well. Richard and Anne’s unbelievable wooing scene was highly stylised, while the scene in which Buckingham convinces an “unwilling” Richard to stand for office was naturalistic and played for laughs (it is always more successful as a comedy).
Where this production departed from the usual (and that is by no means an insult – with Richard III, “the usual” is brilliant) is that this Richard had no disability at all, nor was he a soldier.
Every high-profile Western actor to take up the part has spent weeks, months or years on Richard’s self-described “deformity” – in the text, he describes himself as having a hunched back, uneven legs and a withered arm. Antony Sher diagnosed him with scoliosis and spend months researching the disease for accuracy; Olivier, McKellen and recently Kevin Spacey have opted for crutches, slings or walking sticks.
And Richard is nearly always shown as a military man, which is heavily supported by the text: in his soliloquies, he says he is not suited for peace and only knows how to make war, which is why he is driven to murder his way to the English crown.
This Richard was tall, fit and (it must be said) quite handsome. He only carried a weapon in two scenes: his wooing of Lady Anne, when he urges her to either kill him with his own sword or marry him, and the final battle scene where he fights Richmond hand-to-hand and loses. In all the other scenes, he is guilelessly unarmed: his only weapon is his charm, which is considerable.
It made Richard less supernaturally evil, and in that way more terrifying. The opening speech, “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York…but I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks…” was completely cut. Richard’s motivation to “hew [his] way out with a bloody axe” was not his disability, or even the fact that he was born and raised in the middle of a gruesome war and was unequipped to live in peacetime. It was simple greed for power, a more common and therefore much more terrifying urge.
After being fatally wounded, Richard crawled towards the throne, clutching his crown and chanting what I think translated to “I am king, I am king”. (ETA: Ah, it was “My horse, my horse, my kingdom for a horse” – that makes sense!) Richmond picked up the crown and crowned himself, with the soldiers bowing to him using the exact same gestures and choreography they had used to bow to Richard when he crowned himself just before the interval. Richard continued to repeat his words to himself, and to the audience, as Richmond’s court began to fracture.
I saw the Globe to Globe’s Richard III production at Shakespeare’s Globe on April 29, 2012.