The thought will not down that an unfortunate choice was made when King Richard III was selected as the spearhead stage offering. It is definitely the most unwholesome of all Shakespeare’s tragedies, and its only character of any real dramatic interest is that of Richard himself — a physically repulsive hypocrite, liar & murderer without one redeeming feature.— The Stratford Beacon-Herald, June 30, 1953
Defying the Beacon-Herald’s strictures, the Stratford Festival nonetheless opened its inaugural season with Richard III — with no less a personage than Alec Guinness (“the old Obi-Wan”, as I overheard a Festival-going mom telling her son a few years back) in the title role, and the results were raved about throughout the Anglophone world. Since then, the Festival has mounted the tragedy at least seven more times, with both widely-known actors such as Alan Bates (1967) and Brian Bedford (1977) and talented company members like Stephen Ouimette (1997) and Tom McCamus (2002’s 50th season) flocking to fill the part.
Having paid his dues at Stratford before launching into a well-rounded career that spans Canadian biopics of Pierre Trudeau & Glenn Gould and comic book movies (Thor: The Dark World and The Amazing Spider Man 2), it’s intriguing to see Colm Feore become a repeat Richard, 35 years after he first essayed the role at the 1988 Festival. His deeply physical take on the Duke of Gloucester, complete with a gait that evokes the scoliosis evident in the monarch’s recently-discovered skeleton, is visually riveting. His way with the text is equally arresting; doing without the scene-chewing excess of an Olivier, he’s nonetheless “determined to prove a villain” from the opening soliloquy, unabashedly eager to walk the Tom Patterson Theatre audience through his machinations as he claws his way toward the throne. And like Feore’s other role this season as Molière’s The Miser, his Richard becomes the focal point around which Shakespeare’s cast revolves, constantly manipulated and mesmerized by him whether they realize it or not.
Sooner or later, however, most of the other characters do discover what Richard really wants. Freed from their self-deception and ambition, it’s their reactions that give the tragedy both its recurring sparks of conflict and its building momentum. Michael Blake’s Duke of Clarence, with his dreamed intimations of his brother’s betrayal; Jessica B. Hill’s Lady Anne, whose loathing of Richard is palpable even as he perversely woos her (and wins her!); Ben Carlson’s clueless Hastings and Andre Sills’ scheming Buckingham, whose death row regrets soar to commanding heights — all these keep any empathy the audience may be developing for the would-be usurper at arm’s length.
Towering over all these are Seana McKenna (who played Richard in 2011!) as the mad, prophetic dowager Queen Margaret, calling down curses on all and sundry; Lucy Peacock, whose Queen Elizabeth soars to dizzy heights of spite and bereavement following Richard’s slaughter of her children; and Diana LeBlanc, whose Duchess of York is shocked into cursing her upstart son just as he gains the throne. This is titanic stuff — the loosely historical narrative may drive the action of the play, but the clash of deep — and deeply flawed — characters is what keeps us from joining Team Richard, despite the combined allure of Shakespeare’s words and Feore’s strange appeal. In fact, no sooner does Richard become king than we (and possibly he) realize that his downfall is inevitable — and that we need to see it, to make some sense of these tumultyous events.
Even in the intimate TPT (with one-third the capacity of the Festival Theatre), there’s spectacle aplenty to be mined by director Antoni Cimolino and the populous, well-drilled cast as Richard approaches his necessary end. Royal processions, civil unrest, a coronation, ghostly visitations and the final battle between the forces of the usurper and Jamie Mac’s enigmatic, recessive Henry Tudor stir the blood, even as they bring Richard’s lurid dreams to both their culmination and their dissolution. And while this generally traditional production is a feast for the eyes and ears that I can’t recommend highly enough, Cimolino leaves us with more food for thought as well. His prologue and epilogue are set in the present day, with the discovery of Richard’s skeleton and his reburial in Leicester Cathedral bookending the tragedy — as if to remind us that, no matter how high Shakespeare’s characters may fly, as the Bard wrote later in his career,
Golden lads and girls all must,(Cymbeline)
Like chimney sweepers come to dust.
Richard III runs through October 30th at the Stratford Festival’s Tom Patterson Theatre. Tickets available at stratfordfestival.ca.
— Rick Krueger