Stage Door Review

Richard III

Monday, June 6, 2022

✭✭

by William Shakespeare, directed by Antoni Cimolino

Stratford Festival, Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford

June 4-October 30, 2022

Richard III: “What do I fear? myself? there’s none else by” (Act 5, Scene 3)

June 4th is an historic day for the Stratford Festival. That day finally saw the opening of the new Tom Patterson Theatre. It had been ready in 2020 but was prevented from opening by the Covid pandemic. The Festival has chosen to open the new theatre with Richard III and All’s Well That Ends Well, the same two plays that opened the Stratford Festival itself back in 1953 when it was still in a tent where the Festival Theatre now stands. This decision is a sign of the importance that the new Tom Patterson Theatre now holds. For many years the Patterson was many Stratford-goers’ favourite venue. The new Patterson will simply consolidate that view.

From the outside the new theatre looks like it was built for Toronto or Ottawa but dropped in Stratford. The architect says that building relates to the Avon River (i.e., Lake Victoria), but the building in no way relates to the city of Stratford. In fact, there is a blank wall to the north of the building as if to separate the theatre from the rest of the town. Its exterior of marble and gold-tinted glass exudes big-city wealth and looks more like a private museum or a corporate headquarters rather than a theatre.

Inside there is a long, spacious lobby that will remind most people of an expensive international hotel that could be located anywhere. The most important feature of the building is the auditorium itself which recreates the look and feel of the old Tom Patterson Theatre so well that one feels immediately at home. The seats have an optimum rake if not offering optimum comfort. For Richard III it is in the old Patterson’s familiar long thrust configuration with a set upstage imitating the stairs and balcony of the Tanya stage of the Festival Theatre. In this configuration the theatre can seat 600. The theatre, however, can easily be converted to an in-the-round configuration in which case it can seat 720. A further plus of the new building is an events room, Lazaridis Hall, where solo shows have been scheduled during the season making it, in effect, the Festival’s fifth stage.

As for Shakespeare’s play, director Antoni Cimolino’s main conceit is to frame the play with the discovery and the reinterment of Richard III’s remains. The action begins with a newly written prologue about the discovery of the remains of Richard III in 2012 on the site of the former Greyfriars Priory in Leicester, England. Richard III was killed on August 22, 1485, in the Battle of Bosworth Field (depicted in Shakespeare’s play) and his body taken to Greyfriars for burial. Cimolino concludes the play with the reinterment of Richard III’s bones on March 26, 2015.

What makes no sense at all is that this reinterment is presided over by Shakespeare’s Henry V and Princess Elizabeth in modern dress, who deliver Shakespeare’s final speech for Henry divided between them. In reality in 2015 the only royals present were Sophie, Countess of Wessex, Prince Richard, Duke of Gloucester, and Brigitte, Duchess of Gloucester. In Cimolino’s ending mourners for Richard III strew flowers on his coffin. Is Cimolino trying both to show us Shakespeare’s Tudor version of Richard III and to rehabilitate him in the same play? If so, it doesn’t work.

After the discovery of Richard’s remains in the prologue, Richard (Colm Feore) steps out of the grave and begins the play with its famous opening line, “Now is the winter of our discontent”. Feore played the role before at Stratford in the Festival Theatre in 1988 when he was 30. Now 33 years later at age 63, Feore plays Richard very differently. On both occasions I watched the play with an expert on birth anomalies. In 1988 Feore chose to give the “deformed” Richard an anomaly that is extremely rare. In 2022 he has given Richard an anomaly that my expert says is non-existent. Francesca Callow’s costuming suggests that Richard has scoliosis, but the paralyzed arm and two twisted legs that still allow for rapid scurrying is fantasy. Feore seems to have chosen this combination of anomalies to make Richard resemble the “bottled spider” as he is termed by both Margaret and Queen Elizabeth.

The most significant change is that Cimolino does not have Richard address his monologues to the audience. This is the first in the ten or so times I have seen the play that a director or an actor has taken this approach. The reason why this approach is usually avoided is that it ruins the play.

Basic study of the play will tell you that Shakespeare has closely modelled his Richard III after the Vice figure of medieval drama. In morality plays, like the character Mischief in Mankind (c.1470), the Vice figure speaks directly to the audience, tells them what he plans to do, does it and then comments to the audience on how well his plans are going. Richard directly compares himself to this character: “Thus like the formal Vice, Iniquity, / I moralize two meanings in one word” (Act 3, Scene 1). The point of this rapport between the Vice and the audience is to implicate the audience in what the Vice does, with the intent that no one in the audience can feel themselves literally and metaphorically free of vice.

One of Shakespeare’s brilliant tactics is to establish a link between Richard and us only to start breaking that link once Richard becomes king. It is then, not at the beginning, that Shakespeare starts to force us to look objectively at Richard and to make us wonder how we could have thought such a monster so humorous. It is no accident that the most highly praised Richard II at Stratford of the last 50 years was that starring Brian Bedford in 1977 directed by Robin Phillips which, by all accounts was also the most humorous, and the most tragic, Richard III critics had ever seen.

With the loss of this Richard-audience dynamic comes a loss in tension. In a good production of Richard III, tension should mount the closer Richard gets to his goal. Once he achieves his goal and then oversteps the last boundary of morality which in Shakespeare is always the intentional or accidental death of children or a child – whether the Princes in the Tower, Banquo’s children, Mamillius, Arthur. After Richard overstepped this boundary tension should increase as we watch Richard’s inevitable downfall.

In the present production Antoni Cimolino’s direction is so leisurely and we are so disengaged from Richard that Richard seems to saunter into claiming the throne rather than claw his way to it. Cimolino is much better in showing Richard’s downfall, but he has cut so many scenes featuring Richmond that the confrontation between the two is limp. Cimolino even changes the text to demote Richmond even further. He has Catesby, Richard’s loyalest follower, suddenly slit Richard’s throat, after which Richmond, standing by, kills Catesby. Why deny the play the final confrontation between Good and Evil, as the Tudors saw it? It completely ruins the end the play has been working toward. If Cimolino were trying for historical accuracy, he should show Richard receiving nine wounds to the head as were identified in 2014.

As an actor Colm Feore he is still one of the best speakers of Shakespearean verse to have trod the boards at Stratford. His voice is hoarser than it was in 1988 and no longer has the same dynamic range, but Feore can ring more nuance from his lines than most of his contemporaries. The highpoint of his performance in this production is Richard’s final speech, “O coward conscience, how dost thou afflict me!” where he admits to himself that he is a fool and a villain. Feore lengthens out the speech, making significant pauses to allow Richard’s insights into himself to register as after, “What do I fear? myself? there’s none else by”. This may be the most powerful delivery of this speech I’ve ever heard. If only Cimolino had allowed this introspection to contrast with what should have been Richard’s early extrovert comic interaction with the audience, Richard’s moments of insight could have been even more shattering.

Cimolino has surrounded Feore with a huge cast (31) of mixed abilities. Of those who make the strongest impression is André Sills as Buckingham. Buckingham has helped Richard to the throne for his own purposes. When Richard reneges on his promises to Buckingham, Sills has Buckingham display a mingling of anger and contempt that can barely be contained.

Wayne Best is excellent as the dying Edward IV who vainly tries to have enemies in court make peace with each other before he dies. Michael Blake as Clarence is a man nobly, not weakly, confronting death. The same can be said of the equally articulate Sean Arbuckle as Earl Rivers and Ben Carlson as Lord Hastings.

Other well spoken, well acted roles include Lord Stanley by David Collins, Sir Richard Ratcliffe by Qasim Khan and Executioner #1 by Jordin Hall, whose deep voice instantly conveys authority. Chase Oudshoorn deserves special mention as the young Prince Edward. Though only in high school Oudshoorn has more presence and speaks Shakespeare’s verse with more clarity than many of the actors 10-20 years his senior.

Among the female actors it is a real pleasure to see Diana Leblanc on stage again in this case in the role of the aged Duchess of York, Richard’s mother. Though her voice like Feore’s has lost its wide dynamic range, yet through clarity of diction and precision of emphasis Leblanc repeatedly brought home the Duchess’s hatred of her son and despair at having given him birth.

Lucy Peacock plays Queen Elizabeth, wife of Edward IV, as in no doubt about her status and nobility. Margaret called Elizabeth a “poor painted queen” and some actors have played Elizabeth as a superficial woman until tragedy strikes. Peacock does not.

Among important roles that should have been played better is the Lady Anne of Jessica B. Hill. In the key wooing scene of Act 1, Hill shouts all her lines so that the subtlety of her change from woman in mourning to woman entertaining attention from her husband’s murderer is entirely lost. Once she does not shout, as when she departs later on knowing Richard will be rid of her, Hill is much more powerful.

One major surprise is Seana McKenna’s portrayal of Queen Margaret, widow of Henry VI, whom Richard killed. Though costumed by Francesca Callow as a vulture, McKenna gives Margaret no hint of madness or of a hatred that Margaret has nurtured for years. Rather McKenna as Margaret strides about imperiously as if she were still queen and owed honour, though anyone familiar with the three Henry VI plays that precede Richard III will know how cruel she was when in power. McKenna’s Margaret, other than grey hair, shows no sign of age even though Margaret is the only character in the First Tetralogy to appear alive in all four plays.

Another surprise is how completely ineffectual Jamie Mac’s portrayal is of Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, the man who will save England from the scourge of Richard’s tyranny. Mac is not helped by having virtually all of his lines removed including his speech rallying his soldiers which is the greatest sign of his moral and oratorical superiority to Richard. And then to have Cimolino not even allow Richmond to slay Richard negates any heroism that could attend Richmond, founder of the Tudor dynasty, and leaves him irredeemably bland.

Seeing this season’s Richard III is a way of visiting the new Tom Patterson Theatre and of honouring the play that opened the Stratford Festival in 1953. The current production itself, however, leaves an entire theatrical side of Richard’s character unrealized and minimizes the power of his opponent and his triumph over Richard. Like Richard’s ridiculously long coronation robe, a crass attempt to outdo Alec Guinness’s robe in 1953, the production tends too often to be spectacle without sense.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: Colm Feore as Richard III, © 2022 David Hou; Tom Patterson Theatre, © 2022 Scott Norsworthy; Colm Feore as Richard III, © 2022 David HouChanakya Mukherjee as Lord Grey, Lucy Peacock as Queen Elizabeth, Wayne Best as King Edward IV, Ben Carlson as Lord William Hastings with members of the company, © 2022 David Hou.

For tickets visit www.stratfordfestival.ca.