Richard III: Power by a Different Name

"If not to heaven, then hand in hand to hell."--Richard III

There has never been a question that Richard III is dastardly, power-hungry and evil.  But Mark Rylance plays him in the recent Globe Theatre to West End transfer as a gentle, sometimes doltish storyteller, who begins by manipulating everyone by his words alone and eventually becomes a man driven mad with power.  Rather than playing to power from the beginning, he demonstrates his power through his canny and the perilous result of power taking control of a man's life.  With Rylance there is never an evil mustache twirling moment.  This Richard is a truly unique creature.  On first blush it is a strange choice.  When has "Now is the winter of our discontent" every gotten a laugh?  Here.  But in Rylance's skilled hands he convinced me.  The text is so driven by monologues and speeches that it seems almost natural he is addressing us with his plans and schemes.  He's manipulating us as well--telling us the story we want to hear.

That Richard is at times comically "playing at" manipulating characters in the play enriches the numerosity of masks he is wearing throughout the play.  Rylance's Richard is exactly what he needs to be in each scene to get what he wants.  With his brother Clarence, he is the loyal brother pledging to do what he can to rescue him--even if we know he wants Clarence dead.  With Lady Anne, he is an admitted murderer of her husband but he inveigles his way into her heart as a suffering romantic who did everything out of his love and desire for her.  The sudden tone shifts or inconsistencies in the text here get smoothed over by Richard acknowledging, to us shamelessly, his constant duplicity.  But that duplicity is delivered with a sense of the character's humanity.  Rylance is often winking to the audience as we become his co-conspirators.  It's a bit like being charmed by a sociopath really.  You feel you are in on the secret joke and then you end up standing there holding a bloody knife not sure how you ended up with this murderer.

Rylance manages to pull this all off because he is respectful of the character.  He's open in a way I found Kevin Spacey to be closed when he performed the same role in the Bridge Project's production.  Rylance invites the audience in to share in his misdeeds.  Spacey took his "shouty" Richard and just kept beating the audience with it.  He was doing such violence to the text and the audience in an assault of sarcasm.  Here Rylance is not sarcastic once.  He's knowing, he's winking but he's honest to the character.  He does not step outside the character of Richard to mock it, even if he may look askance at his own cunning and admire it or acknowledge it.  Spacey never even defined the character of Richard.  Everything he did was with such contempt it seemed he did not know the bounds of his own character's humanity and evil--so that he was just all evil.  And Richard needs some boundaries. 

Here, once Richard starts to lose his mind, Rylance's humanity does slip considerably (there is a scene where he practically gnaws Lady Anne's fingers in a not-sexy, creepy way).  But his humanity existed so we recognize its departure.

Rylance and director Tim Carroll unearth great humor in this play but the seriousness of the struggles of others are not diminished by Richard's comic moments.  In particular I found Liam Brennan to be a wonderful Clarence, doomed brother to Richard, who has little to laugh about or at. And for a small comic turn, I enjoyed Jethro Skinner as the 2nd Murderer.

It need be said that this is an all male production of Richard III.  Johnny Flynn, Samuel Barnett and James Garnon play Lady Anne, Queen Elizabeth, and the Duchess of York respectively.  They are intentionally mannered performance to be sure but no more so than Rylance's Richard and they work here as part of the cohesive fabric of this production.  I liked Johnny Flynn's cool but angry Lady Anne.  The choices they made for both Rylance and Flynn make a scene that is so hard to pull off really work.  Flynn is left with no choice but to succumb to Richard and he plays the confusion and struggle with clarity.  Barnett's Elizabeth maybe gives the most venomous curtsy I have ever seen.  I kind of want a gif of it (Internet will get you get on that!).  I think The Heiress's Jessica Chastain could learn a think or two about venom, curtsies and a raised eyebrow from Barnett.

But all these aspects (including music played on Renaissance era instruments and Shakespearean era costumes) together integrate so well that you leave feeling if you saw Shakespeare performed as Shakespeare was intended to be performed.  And I'm not a strict-constructionist by any means (though my resistance to the recent Wooster Group Hamlet--reviewed pending--might suggest otherwise).  But this was really digging into the original "feel" of Shakespeare: what it might have been like to see this back in the day.

Since I saw the Bridge Project's Richard III this year, it is hard not to compare the two. The only thing I will say I missed from that production was the awesome use of drums--sincerely.  Especially as Richard's madness grew here, I longed for a bigger musical backdrop.  But I guess not having big drums is a small price to pay for great acting and a deep understanding of the purpose of your endeavor.  I'm very much looking forward to this same ensemble's take on Twelfth Night later this week.

And I should note I attended on Press Night and the audience went simply wild during the curtain call.  I have never experienced a British audience react so loudly and with such fervor as I saw that afternoon.  3 curtain calls and a standing ovation.  Even the critics were on their feet.



  1. As you may be aware I also saw this production while it was still at the Globe. :) I loved it, loved it, loved it. I'd never seen Richard III before, not even on film, or even read it actually (though I knew the story, roughly).

    I felt like Rylance's Richard was *almost* cartoonishly villainous but stayed just on the right side of it. He seemed like he just didn't understand why anyone took offense at his sociopathy, like he'd be happier living in a more evil world, where people could appreciate his charm and overlook all the murdering.

    I think I know the venomous curtsy you're talking about, and I loved the interactions between Elizabeth and Richard in general. That scene where Richard's trying to talk her into letting him marry her daughter was a highlight of the second half of the play for me. Rylance and Barnett did a great job of sort of talking past each other, Richard making insane requests as though they were perfectly reasonable, and Elizabeth giving barely contained shocked sarcasm in reply.

    And although I have mixed feeling about all-male "original practice" productions (it all gets mixed up with my feelings about Early Music and countertenors), it's hard to get worked up about any production this skillful and gorgeous. Even aside from the acting, there was so much attention to detail in practice, in costume (the tiny armor hand!), in music. Anyway, I loved it, and thanks again for the ticket!


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