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  • Writer's pictureBen Kemper

Richard III at ISF

Or: The Blood will Rain Down and the Spit shall Spurt Forth

High above us, on a balcony smooth and steely as the modern London’s Skyline, stands Queen Margaret (Eva Barnes), perhaps Shakespeare's most complex and compelling woman, reduced by fate from fiery monarch to frigid fury. She pours a bucket of blood into the waiting basin below, the spatter of viscus humors quickening the steps of another poor noble who, exhumed from a smoking pit, bravely faces the doom that awaits them backstage. “Despair and Die” the curse hissing Queen calls out, her voice as leaden and bloodless as a dirge, “Despair and Die!”

This is how I like my Shakespeare.

‘Ah. No Kill like Overkill?’ You may query, gentle reader, with an eyebrow raised. Perhaps you are right. But Shakespeare is meant to be passionate and full blown, especially in the Histories, where epic waring and epic wooing, politics and prophesy go hand in hand, gauntlet in glove. And Richard III, the culmination of his War of the Roses cycle, lends itself to scenes of supernatural horror as much as Machiavellian maneuvering.

The plot of Richard is so heavily tied with its sister plays Henry VI Part’s 2 and 3, that it would take a great deal of time that I do not have to lay out the why’s and wherefore’s of who hates who, so I’ll be brief. Richard, Duke of Gloucester, (Lynn Robert Berg) has spent many a long year fighting the War of the Roses; the interfamilial, intergenerational feud for possession of the crown. He has happily butchered all his family’s enemies but now that his brother Edward reigns as king, Richard begins to have bloody designs upon his allies, and all those that separate him from absolute power.

To achieve his aims he must murder his brother George, Duke of Clarence (J. Todd Adams), marry Lady Anne (Laura Welsh Berg) grieving widow of his most illustrious victim, disprove the legitimacy of his nephews, and, of course, kill a lot of people. Yet as the blood flows and coagulates in England's fields, Richard finds that the real challenge is not taking the throne, but keeping it.

Director Joseph Hanreddy does a wonderful job of letting the story flow at its rapid pace while shifting the style of its delivery. In some scenes are a royal drama, lathered in pomp with immortal arguments issued from stately mouths jousting each other. In other scenes marinate in Chekovian silence, where the souls, the extremely flawed souls, in power broadcast the immortal words not said. And in some scenes we are treated to an explosive but sophisticated Black Comedy. George’s ‘assassination by hipsters’ is a prime example of this, as the low key reasoning between murderer and victim is broken by lightening fast busts of violence. There are other bloody and hilarious moments involving an ill-timed bowl of strawberries and Richard dressing up like an hunchbacked Mr. Rogers that I merely whet your appetite with. Hanreddy is always changing his tactics, to keep us and the characters on their toes. If the repeated deluges of blood and the gratuitous use of grenades seem a little heavy handed rest assured they are interlaid with gestures of subtle sublimity. The penultimate scene, when Richard’s chickens come home to roost, is so sublimely chilling, so d*mn gripping, that I wouldn’t have minded if the final battle at Bosworth Field had been done as vaudeville.

Berg takes his cues for Hanreddy and comes to us playing the Long Game. His Richard is neither the classic “rejoicing in villainy’ sort nor the modish “Freudian excuse seeking” sort. He’s just a soldier who knows what he wants and catches the nearest way to it, and he’s often as surprised as we are at his meteoric rise. Yet even as he steps over corpses in his journey to power we see some shadows of real regret darken his face. Towards the end, Berg shows us some more definable artistry as the king’s mind begins to fray, and he attempts to put on a commanders face while dealing with doubt, loneliness and terror.

Even if you have trouble tracking Berg’s motivations, you’ll have no trouble understating his speech. The man is a master of scansion, the art of reading Iambic Pentameter and finding the directions hidden therein. As he speaks you can almost hear the heartbeat of the verse, propelled to your ears by a voice powerful as heralds trumpet and clear as a Bose speaker.

Laura Welsh Berg, recently decamped from a production where she herself played the hunchbacked king, has made sure that her Lady Anne is no shrinking violet but a creature of Iron. Though her grief over her husband and father in law is palpable, she puts much more power into cursing than wailing, and her invectives swift and biting as the stony glares she shoots at her would be suitor. We get the sense that she falls for Richard’s proposal not because she’s won over with honey words but that, finding no counter force to meet her righteous charge she tripped straight into his trap. Though snared in her own web, and given much less to work with by the author than she deserves, Anne remains a staunch enemy of her husband from bower to grave and beyond...

The often dismissed Other female counterpart of Richard, his sister-in-law Queen Elizabeth, is handed masterfully by Sara M. Brunner. Elizabeth and Richard cannot stand the sight of each other and engage in a war of jibes and sneers throughout the first half of the play; a sort of evil Benedict haughty Beatrice relationship, if you squint. That changes as Elizabeths family members begin to fall afoul of Richard’s schemes and she is left to watch, powerless as every joy is stripped from her. Finally confronting the monster, and asked to perform an unspeakable task, Elizabeth takes leave of all her queenly reserve, (once only broken here and there by a tremor or a genteel snort), and flies into a passion, hands seeking a neck to throttle, spit flying forth as though to mist every inch of her rival in contempt. In another performer, such a frenzied burst might have alienated us, but Brunner controls her violence so well, and presents the verse so clearly, and has given us such previews of Elizabeth’s despair that it seems the only natural reaction a queen, or a performer, could take.

There are many other standout performances of the evening: Adam’s weary but elegant George, Tom Ford’s winged words as the lord Hastings, David McCann’s desperation as Lord Stanley and the eyebrow impatient assurance of the young princes (Jodi Dominic and Lucy Anders). Even Alex Syiek, who plays Henry, Earl of Richmond, makes a braw go of it (and how you are supposed to convincingly play a chap who shows up at the eleventh hour and whose sole purpose is to be the warrior of all that is right and good, I have no idea). I have no time to name all the splendid little gestures of fear or anger or reassignment that I marked but I would be remiss if I did not congratulate David Anthony Smith for his performance as the Duke of Buckingham, Richard’s helpmate to the throne. Smiths lively manner, liquid vowels, and crystal clear glances are perfectly suited to the seasoned politico, the man who can “smile and smile and be a villain”. There is such a moment of joy when Buckingham and Richard mark each other out as fellow schemers, “My other self!” the hunchback cries, “My counsel's consistory, my oracle, my prophet!” It’s a match made in...well somewhere, and the two interplay beautifully till, of course, they don’t.

Even as I encourage you, dear reader, to go out and see this play saturated with blood and excellence and blood and cleverness and blood, I must take a moment to think about the Richard the Third who ruled over England for a scant two years before dying at Bosworth Field. Sure he killed a lot of people and treated his sister-in-law badly but he was a patron of the arts and sciences, a defender of the poor, and a fiscally responsible ruler (lord knows how rare those are). He also loved his Lady Anne, and was loved by her, from childhood and there’s is one of the sweetest, if bitterest, romances in England. He was slain by treachery on the field, and lay for centuries in ignominy in an unmarked grave, his gifts overlooked, his villainies magnified, and his very form twisted long before Shakespeare set out to describe him. Yet he will be longer remembered, and better loved, as a usurping, lecherous, and murdering tyrant than ever he would be as a good king. I suppose we love our Richards, Aarons and Iagos more than ever we do our Richmonds, Luciusi and Cassios. No soul fades while the name’s still spoken, and such excellent productions as these will keep us speaking the name of Richard the Third for a good long while.

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