Friday, November 19, 2010

Episode 788: Propeller's Richard III

Went to see Propeller's production of Richard III at the Belgrade this evening, which I thought was a really solid piece of work. The most surprising thing, for me at least, was the amount of gallows humour the company managed to unearth. The footnotes in the Norton edition of the play already highlight several instances of punning and irony, but by bringing some of the action onstage that is otherwise not made explicit in Shakespeare's text, e.g. Richard and Anne's wedding, the company was able to do things like have the couple walk down an 'aisle' of dead bodies, with Anne tripping midway and looking mildly horrified. I also really liked how their Richard basically murders everyone in full view of the audience, including the two murderers (with their Mockney accents and their nimble feet) and Tyrrell (who looked like a character straight out of some torture porn film) right after they've done his bidding. None of these characters die in Shakespeare's text. Nice touch, by the way, taking away all of Tyrrell's lines and having Ratcliffe act as the go-between instead. Really enhanced the former's axe murderer vibe. Another great little moment was when the Scrivener came back on to denounce Richard before the Citizens, was promptly silenced, and then Catesby was comically trying to conceal the body.

It seems to me that the production's greatest strength was its attention to the small details. (Randomly, I'd never noticed how the play's two wooing scenes both end with the idea of faring well.) The hospital trappings and paraphernalia were definitely not something that would immediately have come to my mind if I were staging Richard III, but they worked very well, I thought, especially in the exchange where Edward bids Elizabeth, Rivers, Hastings and Buckingham to be reconciled to each other. Just before, we saw all of them lined up, together with Richard, and vials of blood being drawn from them by the orderlies in smocks and masks. So when they swore amity, they exchanged the vials and drank from them. Kind of creepy, but as a literal embodiment of blood oaths, it was brilliant. Richard, of course, appeared after everyone else had drunk from each other's vials, and so was never bound by anything other than his words, feigning friendship to Elizabeth. I also liked how when the orderlies transformed into the Citizens in the first scene after the intermission, where Buckingham is trying to incite them to support Richard, they pulled down their masks to around their necks, and it almost made their costumes look somehow clerical.

This was particularly interesting because of how the religious aspect of the play appeared to have been deliberately foregrounded. Just before the intermission, we had the visual image of a cross, with the crown positioned at its base. In the scene where the coronation of the young prince is being discussed, Richard tells the Bishop of Ely to send for some strawberries, and the latter walks off the stage. Never occurred to me while reading the text that this was literally the Church being moved out of the picture, so that Richard and Buckingham's conspiratorial confabulation now takes place in a space vacated by religion. Then there was the whole Latin choral chanting, which was creepy but very effective in invoking particular moods. Like the Dies Irae whenever someone was about to die. (Ratcliffe's ticking timepiece in the death scenes of Hastings and Buckingham was also wonderfully funny, by the way.) I think the use of the chorus throughout the entire production was just fantastic in general, and it did make me think of Tom Cornford's comment in his lecture on how there are two ways of reading the play, as history turned into myth or myth turned into history. It seems that the chorus here was almost functioning like one from a Greek tragedy (and Margaret did seem like some sort of avenging spirit when she was cursing everyone and sprinkling them with her bowl of blood).

To go back to the religious angle, I also found it interesting because of how Richmond came across as such a Bible-thumping character. The good-versus-evil element was converted visually into Richard's all-black and Richmond's all-white costumes. What complicated this, however, was how the latter's costume seemed just a bit too slick. Think televangelist. (Richard just looked a bit like Darth Vader, to be honest, and later, Captain Hook, with his shrivelled arm and missing hand.) Then there was that cross he kept swinging in his right hand. I'm pretty sure he held it with his right hand every time it appeared, except in the final scene, where he'd transferred it to his left because his right was holding the pistol he used to shoot Richard. Twice. I was curious as to how Propeller would portray Richmond, and it seems like they've gone for ambiguity. Apart from that switch of hands, there was also the manner of Richard's death. The battle Shakespeare's text calls for didn't happen because as Richard drew his weapon, Richmond took out his and fired off a shot. That was it. Game over, basically.

Leaving aside the obviously non-confrontational (and therefore not-quite-heroic) nature of Richmond's victory, there were little details that suggested to me this production was deliberately aligning his character with Richard's. This began all the way from the dream sequences, where I must say having the ghosts unzip themselves from their body bags was superb. Instead of setting up two separate spaces for Richard and Richmond, they occupied the same space, with the orderlies moving hospital screens around to allow for transitions. Then we saw them sleeping sitting up on the bed, back to back, so that the ghosts' cursing of one and blessing of the other overlapped. The most telling detail, to my mind anyway, was their interactions with the crown. Both characters take the crown up and crown themselves. One might argue that Richard's avaricious seizing of the crown wasn't quite the same thing as Richmond's more measured placing of it on his head, but the fact remains that the actual act of putting on the crown was self-initiated in both cases. Furthermore, Richmond ends the play on his knees, holding a pistol in one hand and a cross in the other, wedding martial and religious imagery even as he delivers a speech calling for divine blessing on the forthcoming time of peace. A bit dubious, no?

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