Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Richard III

Background history: 
The Platagenet House of English Kings started with Henry II and ended with the infamous Richard III. To provide some context, King Richard II was followed by Henry IV (start of Lancaster rule), then his son Henry V, and then Henry VI who left no eligible heir leading to the York line of rule.  King Edward IV (the eldest brother of Richard III) then ruled followed briefly by his son Edward V who was mysteriously murdered along with his young brother Richard.  They would come to be known as the Tower Princes for their disappearance and murder in the Tower of London.  Their deaths lead to the declaration of their uncle Richard as the new King Richard III, the star of our play.  Richard III is the last king of the Platagenet House, and he is the last English king to have died in battle.  He only ruled for only two years before dying in the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485.  Due to his scoliosis and his grisly death (10 wounds with 8 to the head), Richard III is said to be the origin of the Humpty Dumpty nursery rhyme.  Richard was succeeded by Henry Tudor thereby establishing the Tudor House with King Henry VII who then married Richard's Yorkist niece, Elizabeth, to secure his succession.  Richard III's body was buried with no pomp and was lost for over 500 years.  In 2012, the skeleton of an adult male with scoliosis and evident battle wounds was discovered buried in the choir of an ancient church which was underneath a modern car park located near the battlefield.  Last year, the body was confirmed to beyond a reasonable doubt to be that of Richard III's using a mitochondrial DNA comparison done with one of the current direct descendants of his matrilineal line.  Richard will be the first ancient person with a known historical identity to have the genome sequenced.  His body will soon be interred in Leicester Cathedral.

Shakespeare's Interpretation: 

Richard's reputation was heavily slandered after his death in order to further legitimize the new reign of the Tudors.  No evidence exists of his involvement in murder and treachery beyond the personal testimonies of Tudor men who likely never knew him personally.  He is often described as physically weak, clever, ruthless, calculating, and generally evil with a deformed body so monstrous that it must be a representation of the darkness of his soul. However judging from his skeletal remains, it is unlikely that his scoliosis was extreme enough to cause a debilitating or truly distracting deformity.  These dark accounts of Richard would eventually lead to Shakespeare's depiction of him as an explicitly villainous monster with a hump back and a weak arm.  He is also often portrayed as being much older than he actually was.  Richard was 32 years old at the time of his death, but Shakespeare's Richard and most other productions age him to his 40s and 50s.  Ian McKellen and Laurence Olivier each played Richard III on stage and in film as much older versions of the young, infamous king.  The Frontispage of the First Quarto of Shakespeare's tragedy (seen here) describes Richard's death as "most deserved".

Jamie Lloyd's Richard III

Lloyd's production of Shakespeare's Richard III launches the time period from the early 1480s when Richard historically reigned forward almost 500 years into the future to a vaguely 1970s setting.  The set design is made up of rows of large wooden office desks arranged in such a way that will clarify status of individuals as well as the otherwise often confusing system of alliances within the play.  Character will also be further clarified by intentionally keeping characters who are being discussed by others on stage.  This practice will also serve to show the fragile inter-character loyalties and the power of rumor.  In addition, Lloyd has chosen to stage most, if not all, of the deaths occurring during the play directly on stage.  It is likely that the murders in Richard III would have been traditionally done off stage, but Lloyd has apparently raised the gore-factor to a new, shocking level.  Another unexpected move is the casting of Martin Freeman as the ruthless king.  Known for his more nice-guy roles previously in The Hobbit and Sherlock, Lloyd's counter-intuitive casting creates a shocking performance as Freemen breaks his timid hero box and dives into a wider range of acting.  The outcome is a "gutsy, impassioned production" according to Variety's London Theater Review. (

Here is a quick impression of the production by the cast and crew:

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