This is Not a Review: Richard III (Stratford Festival, 2011)

The first thing we saw in Stratford this year was Richard III at the Tom Patterson Theatre. I don’t remember the last time I saw a show there; I had forgotten that it’s quite similar to the Studio stage at Bard (only bigger), a long thrust that runs almost the entire length of the building, with audience rising in steep banks of seats on three sides in a strict rectangle shape, unlike the Festival stage where the seating radiates out from the thrust stage in more of a circle. It’s certainly the most intimate playing space of the three main stages at the Festival…even the back rows, though quite high up, would still be quite close to the action.

I can’t actually remember if I’ve ever seen Richard III on the stage before. I know we read it in English class at Glebe, and I’ve seen the Ian McKellen film version…and Dad thinks we did see it at Stratford once upon a time…but I’m going to have to look up the programmes from the years we went, because I am really not sure. Anyway, the reason for going this year was to see Seana McKenna in the title role. I’d really like to know whose idea it was to cast a woman – the director’s? Des McAnuff’s? Seana herself? It’s certainly not something you see every day, although I know there’s a relatively recent film version out there of The Tempest with Helen Mirren playing Prospero. It reminds me of Sarah Bernhardt doing Hamlet…at the turn of the century it was maybe more commonplace to see women playing “breeches” parts (la grande Sarah was also famous for L’Aiglon), but also more scandalous for one to take on one of the great male roles of the Western classical canon…even a superstar like Sarah. I wonder if the concept of a female Richard has caught any of that kind of flack in theatre circles more than a century later…?

I hadn’t read anything about this production beforehand, so I didn’t know whether the idea was to change the character’s gender (i.e. to make Richard a woman), or just to have Seana be a woman playing a man. Turns out it was the latter, explained in the programme notes as a casting decision meant to draw our attention to how much of a performer Richard is, how he is almost always acting a part in his dealings with other characters…by adding yet another layer of performance, one that the audience knows about but the characters in the play do not.

I thought the production made a pretty strong case for declaring the actor’s gender irrelevant. A performance is a performance. Seana was doing what any actor does with any part: using certain aspects of her own looks (average height, wiry build, strong features) combined with vocal technique, costuming, make-up  (pale, sickly-looking with stringy hair combed back from a high forehead) and some really distinct physical character choices (they definitely went the “hunchback cripple” route; she did the whole thing with her left arm folded close to her body so it looked smaller and a bit deformed, and a hitching swagger-like gait as though the hunchback made her walk with a crooked sort of limp) to make us believe that she was her character. It worked, too – at least for me. I think I was expecting there to be more of a cognitive dissonance, my brain saying female while the text and the visual were signalling male – but in fact I mostly just forgot that she was anything other than an actor playing a part. She commanded the stage so fully – Richard spends a lot of the play talking to the audience, and she had us all in the palm of her hand right from her first entrance…which is quite an accomplishment when you consider what a completely unsympathetic character he is.

In this interpretation he was evil through and through; the production made no attempt to justify or explain his cruelty, and indeed showed him enjoying himself immensely almost until the very end. There was a lot of sly humour, especially in his asides to the audience, and as she played him he was definitely, gleefully, the smartest person in the room, always two or three steps ahead until his sins caught up with him at the end. That kind of intelligence is compelling in itself; I think that – plus the fact that he (which is to say Seana, playing him) had charisma to burn  – is what made it possible for him to win the audience over even as we were disgusted by all the awful things he was doing with apparently no compunction at all. Possibly it wasn’t a very complex portrayal? But it was certainly riveting.

There were a few moments scattered throughout where they did momentarily remind us of Seana’s real gender – usually to do with something in the text that became a funny double entendre with a woman playing the role – but it was quick, nothing more than a brief, pregnant pause or a well-timed look that got a laugh, and then we moved on as though nothing had happened. I’m not sure what I think of that – on the one hand, it seemed smart to address the gender elephant in the room, to hang a lampshade on what everyone was inevitably thinking once in a while, just so we could recognize it and move on again. And any moments of levity came as a relief, given the overall mood of the show! On the other hand, though, acknowledging the unintentional jokes created by the casting reminded us of what otherwise the production (and Seana) seemed to be asking us to forget. It felt a bit…undermining? Like an attempt to have one’s cake and eat it too, maybe…I dunno.

The design was very simple, the dark brown wood of the stage left mostly uncovered, with a large square of red title floor at centre, red curtains on all the entrances (with big rings that clattered when people made dramatic exits or entrances) and a couple of slightly raised platforms for levels.  Lots of haze in the air, and lots of top-down lighting…at one point a lovely stained glass effect for a scene set in a cathedral… overall quite stark and appropriately medieval-feeling.

The rest of the cast was strong too, especially Martha Henry as Mad Margaret (the only one who really matched Seana/Richard for sheer raw power and stage presence), and the other women who played Lady Anne and Queen Elizabeth – all characters repeatedly placed in horrible, untenable situations, all their choices taken away from them, who still managed to come across as strong, with more integrity than most of the male characters.

The most memorable part of the show, for me, was the end, starting when Richard goes to sleep the night before the battle of Bosworth Field and has a nightmare in which the ghosts of his victims appear to curse him and deny him his victory.  It could have been pretty corny, but as they appeared one by one all dressed in white, it was satisfying in a vindictive sort of way to see them finally stand up to him, get some of their own back even if it was in death. And then they all stayed on stage, silent invisible presences in the pre-battle scenes that followed…and in the climactic battle they surrounded Richard when he entered (“A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”). Battle scenes so often come off as awkward and stagy – it’s hard to suspend disbelief enough for them to feel in any way real or threatening – but in this case when the final important moment came the director slowed everything down, and as Richard hacked his way in slow motion towards the young Duke of Richmond, we could see the ghosts around him blocking or deflecting his sword thrusts, knocking him off balance, catching his crown as it flew off his head (landing in the hands of the ghostly young Prince to whom it rightly should have belonged in life) and finally pushing him into the path of Richmond’s sword for the mortal blow. As he fell back, dying, the ghosts caught him, three or four on either side like pallbearers, and lowered him to the ground. The righteous Duke of Richmond got the last word, but I honestly don’t remember what he said – it was the visual that gripped me. It was an extremely effective ending

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