In the fall of last year, a skeleton was found beneath a parking lot in Leicester, England. DNA testing confirmed that the remains were those of the infamous medieval king Richard III, who died in battle in 1485.
For its solid production of Shakespeare's Richard III, the Rogue Theatre has made canny use of these famous remains.
The program shows a portrait of Richard in life atop a painting of his newly discovered skull. This dual image—of life and death, of power and defeat—suggests the sharply dichotomous way that Richard has been seen over the years: on the one hand, as the pure villain of Shakespeare's depiction; on the other, as a legitimate king maligned by his usurpers.
The Rogue comes down firmly on the side of Shakespeare. Joseph McGrath plays Richard as the hunchback who ruthlessly murdered his way to the throne. Shakespeare's twisted character is an actor's dream, and McGrath—Rogue's artistic director—takes his turn at the role with dark glee. His Richard is an evil imp, and his blackly comic performance is an anchor for this innovative production.
Yet any contemporary audience is probably aware of the other side of Richard's reputation, one that the discovery of his bones has brought back to life. Numerous defenders have theorized that Richard III's terrible reputation is a case of history being written by the victors.
He was defeated, after all, by the Tudors, who were still in power when Shakespeare was writing. Richard III was probably written in about 1592, a few generations after Richard's death. Political expedience might well account for the playwright's desire to paint the man usurped by the Tudors as murderous and evil.
Director Cynthia Meier (also Rogue's managing director) defends Shakespeare's portrayal.
"Recent discoveries don't change the essential facts that Shakespeare presents," she writes in a director's note. But, she adds, Richard is "one of Shakespeare's most roguish inventions."
I disagree on her first point, but concur heartily on the second. Whatever the historical record, Shakespeare's Richard is a devilishly entertaining character. And in a thoughtful take on the script, Meier's vision eschews historical realism in favor of the play's supernatural elements.
Teasing out the script's latent black magic, Meier emphasizes the minor character of Queen Margaret (Kathryn Kellner Brown), widow of King Henry IV. At the beginning of the play, Margaret curses the court like a bad fairy. Meier brings her back throughout the production, whenever characters fearfully recall "Margaret's curse." The highlighting of Margaret is a strong and innovative choice that underlines the play's emphasis on magic and fate.
Meier also gives a more prominent role to the ghosts of the slain victims who come to haunt Richard and cheer his competitor, Richmond (Matt Bowdren). The ghosts literally interfere, shaping the course of events by punishing vice and rewarding virtue.
In Meier's hands, Richard III is not so much a history play as a supernatural morality play: less Henry V and more Macbeth. While Macbeth is loosely based on a real person, no one would mistake its witches, ghosts and prophecies for historical realism. The so-called Scottish play is part folk tale, part moral allegory and part character study.
As it turns out, so is Richard III, as I realized by watching Rogue's production.
This fresh take is supported by the set and musical design. McGrath does double duty as scenic designer and his stage is spare, dominated by a wooden balcony. The musicians, local group Odaiko Sonora, play in the balcony while the action takes place on the stage below.
Odaiko features Japanese taiko drums, which might seem an incongruous choice for this English play, but the heavy percussion aids an ominous, military air to the proceedings. As music director Paul Amiel notes, taiko was used as battlefield music. Here it gives a creepy tone and pulsing rhythm to the events.
The large cast delivers solid performances, particularly actor David Morden, who delightfully plays the scheming Buckingham. Most of the actors are confident and effective with the difficult Shakespearean language. A few supporting players struggle, but overall the delivery is crisp and beautiful.
Given the many creative choices of the production, I hate to present a quibble: the costumes. Costumes represent the hardest choice any Shakespeare production has to make. Does one re-create the Elizabethan costumes or start over with something new?
Meier, also the costume designer, does something in between. Most of the costumes, all doublets and hose, are vaguely medieval/Renaissance. But Queen Margaret is decked out as a cliché witch—in tattered black robes. The costumes feel like an uneasy compromise between historic and thematic, with neither working particularly well.
When the Rogue is so bold and effective with its musical, design and acting choices, why not shake things up with the costuming as well?