Richard III by William Shakespeare, directed by Miles Potter – until September 25, Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford Shakespeare Festival, Stratford, Ontario

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Seana McKenna as King Richard III at Stratford, Ontario. Photo Stratford Shakespeare Festivall/Daivd Hou.

Seana McKenna as King Richard III at Stratford, Ontario. Photo Stratford Shakespeare Festival/David Hou.

Richard III
by William Shakespeare

Director – Miles Potter
Designer – Peter Hartwell
Lighting Designer – Kevin Fraser
Composer – Marc Desormeaux
Sound Designer – Peter McBoyle
Movement – Wendy Allnutt
Fight Director – Daniel Levinson
Assistant Director – Sharon Bajer
Assistant Designer – Sara Brzozowski
Assistant Lighting Designer – Jennifer Lennon
Fight Captain – Wayne Best

Stage Manager – Janine Ralph
Assistant Stage Managers – Martine Beland and Ivory Seol
Apprentice Stage Manager – Jessica Stinson
Production Assistant – Genevieve Magtoto
Production Stage Managers – Janine Ralph and Maxwell T. Wilson
Technical Director – Sean Hirtle

King Edward IV – David Ferry
Queen Elizabeth – Yanna McIntosh
Prince Edward, later King Edward V – Teddy Gough
George, Duke of Clarence – Michael Spencer-Davis
Richard, Duke of Gloucester, later King Richard III – Seana McKenna
Duchess of York – Roberta Maxwell
Lady Anne – Bethany Jillard
Anthony Woodville, Lord Rivers – David Collins
Marquess of Dorset – E. B. Smith
Lord Grey – Dion Johnstone
William, Lord Hastings – Nigel Bennett
Lord Stanley – Andrew Gillies
Duke of Buckingham – Wayne Best
Sir William Catesby – Sean Arbuckle
Sir Richard Ratcliffe – Oliver Becker
Duke of Norfolk – Skye Brandon
Sir James Tyrrel – Paul Fauteux
Thomas, Earl of Surrey – Paul Fauteux
Murderer – Shane Carty
Henry, Earl of Richmond – Gareth Potter
Earl of Oxford – David Ferry
Sir James Blunt – David Collins
Sir Walter Herbert – Shane Carty
Cardinal Bourchier – Cyrus Lane
Archbishop – Brendan Murray
Sir Robert Brakenbury – Brude Godfree
Lord Mayor of London – Shane Carty
Scrivener – Cyrus Lane
Citizens – Laura Condlln, Carmen Grant, and Claire Lautier

In 1953, the town of Stratford, Ontario inaugurated its annual Shakespeare Festival with this very play directed by Tyrone Guthrie and starring Alec Guinness. This year Seana McKenna takes on the title role, adding—as husband and director Miles Potter explains—“one more layer of artifice on Richard.” With over twenty years of experience at Stratford, McKenna hardly needs an excuse to play the part. Yet I understand the public’s demand for an explanation.

In this case, explanations are legion. Artistic Director Des McAnuff notes that men routinely played female roles in Elizabethan times and that gender confusion is a common Shakespearean device (Stratford’s 2011 playbill also features Twelfth Night). General Director Antoni Cimolino adds a political slant by suggesting that McKenna is the Richard whom Shakespeare could never have cast but would have liked to, seeing as Queen Elizabeth had set up a police state not dissimilar to the one King Richard III employed. McKenna herself points out that we need look no further than Karla Homolka to see that women are just as capable of committing unspeakable evils as men.

Though I do not include myself among those needing an explanation, I find none of the above entirely satisfactory. Men in Shakespeare’s time took female roles because women were not allowed to. Gender confusion was an intended, not an incidental, Shakespearean device. And, clever though he was, I am not persuaded that Shakespeare would have been keen on furtively undermining Her Majesty’s policies of governance. Finally, to McKenna’s remark regarding unspeakable evils perpetrated by women, Stephen Marche, author of How Shakespeare Changed Everything, rightly points out that the difference between Richard and Homolka “is a difference of kind as well as of degree” (Toronto Life, 15 July 2011).

I repeat that I am in need of no explanation why a female was cast as Richard. If I needed one, however, I would be satisfied with McKenna’s initial comment: Richard has a lot of terrific lines and she eagerly wanted the opportunity to recite them publicly. She approaches the role in the vein of a two-dimensional “Vice” character so common to medieval morality plays: an approach commonly employed by successful Richards in the past and perhaps not foreign to Shakespeare’s original intent. Rather than acting out his own psychology, Richard acts upon the audience’s psyche, causing it to examine its sympathies for him more than his motives. Buckingham (Wayne Best), urging Gloucester to accept the crown in the presence of the citizens, entreats the latter’s “gentle, kind, effeminate remorse.” Mr. Best, knowing the audience will hear the line as a double entendre, recites it accordingly without unduly lingering over it. In fact, Potter has refrained from manipulating the play in accord with the fact that Richard is played by a woman, and McKenna is not concerned with transforming herself into a man. She scowls, she limps, she holds her crippled left limb in the way we are accustomed, but she does not hesitate to bring to the role everything that has made her a superb actress in previous roles. In short, she does not try so much to be a man as Richard (who, in the words of Lady Anne [Bethany Jillard], is not so much a man as a “diffus’d infection of a man”).

Nevertheless, Richard presents obstacles I am not sure any female actor can overcome, even one of McKenna’s caliber. The role requires an enormous range of vocal flexibility. McKenna covered this range admirably until Act III, Scene 4, in which Richard, using his arm—a “blasted sapling, withered up”—as evidence, condemns Hastings (Nigel Bennett) for having “Consorted with that harlot, strumpet Shore.” Until this moment, Richard has pulled off some amazing performances (“Was ever woman in this humour won?”), but now he must exert himself more than ever before. In the 1995 movie production, Ian McKellen trembles with feigned rage before cuffing Hastings (Jim Carter) on the neck with his maimed hand. His restrained voice worked brilliantly on film but would have had to be modified for the stage. At the other extreme, we have a classic example of a theatrical approach in Laurence Olivier’s adapted-for-screen version of 1955, in which he breaks suddenly into a shrilling forte at the words, “Look how I am bewitched!” However the lines are delivered, dynamic contrast is absolutely essential, and I am not sure McKenna had it. The same might be said for lines such as “A horse! A horse! my kingdom for a horse!”, though by that time there is so much occurring on stage that dynamic contrast is not a major factor.

On a more philosophical level, McKenna’s motivation for playing this role is in tune with what I take to be Stratford’s “literary” approach to Shakespeare. It is true that the Bard was a man of the theatre: a dramatist who knew his genre and wrote to its purpose. He was aware of the array of special effects at his disposal: flying contraptions, trap doors, imaginative sound effects, etc. Yet Shakespeare was also a man of letters, obsessed with words and possessing a highly refined poetic sensibility.

I happen to believe that there is nothing wrong in making this side of Shakespeare the primary point of reference when putting on his plays. I would not go so far as to agree with Philip Edwards that “the nearer we get to the stage, the further we are getting from Shakespeare” (Hamlet, New Cambridge edition, 1985, p. 32), but I do find recitations just as exciting as a full-blown drama. McKenna relishes Richard’s language and pulls the audience into a world where words really do make a difference. Her (his) wooing of Anne, bereft of unctuous cloying, is successful primarily because of its rapid pace and precise timing. She (he) halts rather than coaxes Anne’s thrust of the sword at the words “Nay, do not pause,” and thus her (his) confession “I did kill King Henry” comes across all the more calculated. McKenna’s Richard functions as a paradigm of malevolence without becoming an abstraction.

Portraying Richard in this way sets up difficulties when it comes to showing the audience when and how he begins to unravel. An actor must choose the right moments to reveal Richard’s weaknesses as an “actor” and to give glimpses of his humanity, no matter how shallow. We usually expect Queen Elizabeth (Yanna McIntosh) to show a hint of her cunning in Act IV, scene iv, when she invites Richard to “write to me very shortly, / And you shall understand from me her (i.e., Elizabeth’s daughter’s) mind” only to deceive him by marrying her daughter to Richmond. McIntosh exudes anguish at the loss of her two sons, but her sly intention would not have been apparent if not for the clever blocking of having her stand on a raised platform. But this was not quite enough, for it is during this scene that she must convince the audience that she can “out-act” Richard. On the other hand, McKenna successfully shows Richard slowly unravel during negotiations with Lord Stanley (Andrew Gillies) for the support of his troops. Stanley too “out-acts” Richard, and McKenna plays Richard as if he is less sure than ever of his ability to garner another’s trust.

Actors are faced with another strategic decision at Richard’s “O coward conscience, how dost thou afflict me!” monologue in Act V, scene iii. Some actors place these lines at the level of a detached, internal dialogue rather than a wrenching examination of conscience. After all, even though Richard’s “conscience hath a thousand several tongues, / And every tongue brings in a several tale,” he can keep every one of them in check, seeing as he finds within himself “no pity” to himself.

Others, however, approach these lines as a door opening onto Richard’s disgust with himself and his recognition that he still has a chance to repent. When he confesses to Ratcliffe “I fear, I fear,” the words can either signify a repetition of the same sentiment (i.e., Richard’s fear that some of his men “mean to shrink” from him) or that his conscience is getting the better of him (i.e., that “shadows” have actually “struck … terror to the soul of Richard”). McKenna seems to imply the latter—i.e., that Richard is hounded by his conscience—even though the former would have been more in keeping with the character she presented up until then.

Potter boldly decides to keep the ghosts of Richard’s victims, who enter at this scene, on stage until the end of the play. He adds a nice touch in having the ghost of little Richard, Duke of York (Jeremy Harttrup), whisper something inaudibly into the King’s ear after the others have uttered stark reminders of his bloody deeds. The role of divine providence in Richmond’s victory over Richard is portrayed by having the ghosts guide the combatants’ swords during the Battle of Bosworth which the actors conduct in slow motion—a perilous tactic in live theatre, but generally effective in this case. The ghosts’ hushed repetition of Richmond’s final “Amen” at the end of the play was, however, hokey, though I’m at a loss for what to suggest in its place.

The interpretative key to this production, explains Potter, is contained in an oft omitted discourse occurring in Act III, scene vi. A Scrivener (Cyrus Lane) enters the stage alone announcing:

“Here is the indictment of the good Lord Hastings,
Which in a set hand fairly is engrossed
That it may be to-day read o’er in Paul’s.
And mark how well the sequel hangs together:
Eleven hours I have spent to write it over,
For yesternight by Catesby was it sent me;
The precedent was full as long a-doing;
And yet within these five hours Hastings lived,
Untainted, unexamined, free, at liberty.
Here’s a good world the while! Who is so gross
That cannot see this palpable device?
Yet who’s so bold but says he sees it not?
Bad is the world, and all will come to nought
When such ill dealing must be seen in thought.”

Potter views this as a recapitulation of Edmund Burke’s adage, “all that is required for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing.” To emphasize the insidiousness of human indifference, Potter has all the other characters turn away from Richard whenever one of them is directly attacked by him. Without denying the poignancy of the message, I would suggest that it potentially undermines the role of prophecy and providence throughout the play. The action gradually turns from Richard carrying out his “inductions dangerous” to the fates of heaven running the plot. Many of Richard’s enemies are themselves guilty of heinous crimes, making his villainy anything but anomalous. Only in the case of young Prince Edward and his little brother do we essentially have two guiltless victims. There are boundaries to Buckingham’s Machiavellianism, and the slaughter of children transgresses them. Perhaps his hesitation to consort with Richard makes him guilty of “doing nothing” in the face of evil, but in such a morally corrupt atmosphere, his is at least a step in the right direction. In choosing Burke’s maxim as their hermeneutical key, Potter and company could have devoted more attention to determining what those around Richard might have done but failed to do. After all, for all the citizens know, Richard is a devout, Christian sovereign bent on “holy work,” when in reality the success of his dissemblance depends more on others’ vices (e.g., Anne’s pride) than their apathy.

Nevertheless, this production encourages the audience to take guard from guileful speech. Outstanding performances by Martha Henry as Queen Margaret and Roberta Maxwell as the Duchess of York bring to the fore the feminine intuition piercing through Richard’s intentions. Henry utters Queen Margaret’s curses with such a matter-of-fact, condescending tone that even Richard pays attention, if only for a moment. Maxwell issues her “most grievous curse” against Richard with excruciating sincerity, leaving no doubt that his mother’s “prayers on the adverse party fight.”

The entire cast joins Henry and Maxwell in accentuating word over action as befits the Stratford tradition. In addition to those already mentioned, of particular note was the performance by Sean Arbuckle as Sir William Catesby, who plays the henchman as either mentally deranged or hopelessly dumb.

Do not let the quirky casting of the title role dissuade you from seeing this production. If nothing else, it will help you to recover an appreciation for the spoken word and remind you that the task of “make-believe” falls as much to the spectator as to the performer.

Seana McKenna (foreground, on floor) as King Richard with members of the company in Richard III. Photo David Hou.

Seana McKenna (foreground, on floor) as King Richard with members of the company in Richard III. Photo David Hou.

About the author

Daniel B. Gallagher

Daniel Gallagher has taught philosophy and theology and is the author of numerous articles in metaphysics and aesthetics. He is particularly interested in the overlapping issues of classical, medieval, and modern theories of beauty and art. A catholic priest, Monsignor Gallagher is currently stationed at the Vatican.

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