Back when I was in college, I took a course on Shakespeare that involved making weekly (if not more frequent) trips down to the American Shakespeare Center and the Blackfriars Playhouse. It was a great course, and one of the most fun aspects was getting to have a behind-the-scenes look at the theater and how things worked. The company was putting on a production of Richard III that spring, and we got to meet with the actors playing Richard and Anne, and talk to them about the aspects of the play that we were studying in class. And then we got to see the production that was being put on and it was GREAT. So good.
So that’s your background for me and this show – I have a fondness for it that’s sort of inexplicable considering the show itself is so gory. As in, there is just a string of straight-up murders that happen one right after the other. In fact, the production which we just saw at the Shakespeare Theatre in DC bears the following note on its website: “This production includes graphic depictions of violence, including violence against women and children, which may not be suitable for all audiences. Discretion is advised.” And they are not kidding. You watch each and every one of these murders. People are murdered in new and different ways each time (even if that probably wasn’t the case in the historical event). It feels like someone at STC decided to get creative with their staging so that when people are killed so often it doesn’t become boring – it becomes a question of “How will they do it this time?” (a question I was apparently not the only one asking)
Is the show good, though? Eh – it’s hard to separate it from the violence. When things are as gruesome as they are in this show, it’s hard to focus on anything else. Richard himself is played with a sort of maniacal delight by Matthew Rauch. For me the real scene stealer in the whole production is Lizan Mitchell as Margaret of Anjou, wife of the recently deposed king, and former mother-in-law of Richard’s wife. She comes in looking like a queen straight out of Mad Max – locs and braids that are wrapped up in the crown on her head, big stomping boots, a floor-dusting coat that glides behind her. She captures the attention and holds it every time she appears on stage.
The setting of the show itself is also quite well done – it’s a morgue. So all around the scene are the implements to dissect bodies, and then clean away the blood and parts that may be left behind. A pivotal murder that happens just before intermission leaves behind a gory splat of blood on the stage that is left for a while, and eventually cleaned up by a member of the ensemble, who do cleanup on the other murders in the show. But later on the various parts of the morgue – the body drawers, the hangers, the surgical light, even the sink for hand-washing – they’re all used to great effect.
One of the best scenes in the entire play is (not really a spoiler because Shakespeare and his plays are more than 300 years old) when Richard is haunted by the ghosts of all he has killed/had killed on the eve of battle. The scene is done in such a creepy manner, and uses the entire setting that has been established for the play to this point. It is enough to give you chills.
Anyways – the question you’re probably asking is, “Is this a good show?” and the answer would be yes. But the question you should really be asking is, “Is this the kind of show that I want to see?” And that requires a little more personal reflection. Sure – if you’re a purist and want to see every Shakespeare offering, or at least see a production of every show that he wrote, this might be on your list. Or if you’re a fan of torture-porn horror like Saw, this might be right up your alley. But if you are squeamish, if you don’t care about the history plays, if violence against women and children will send you over the edge? Maybe you should sit this one out. But for the rest of us, it’s an interesting experience and one that is both terrific AND horrific to behold.