|Seana McKenna as Richard III. Photo: D. Hou|
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Miles Potter
Designed by Peter Hartwell
The Story: At the conclusion of the Wars of the Roses, the house of York has come to power and England is in a time of fragile peace, which does not suit Richard of Gloucester, brother to the new King Edward. Determined to cause as much chaos as possible, Richard manipulates and murders his way to the crown, leaving a wake of bodies whose ghosts, he finds, do not rest well in their graves.
Expectations were high for this production of Richard III. Not only is it the first play to have ever been performed at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival 59 years ago, it is the first time a woman, Seana McKenna, has played the lead role, a move that is rare anywhere in the world, let alone in Stratford. As such, it breaks a Bardic glass ceiling – turning 180-degrees from a time when women were not allowed on the stage at all, to a moment when a woman takes on the role of one of theatres greatest villains.
The result is… not what was expected. That Ms. McKenna is a dynamic Shakespearean actor is never in doubt, and in her costume (complete with stringy, balding wig – think Filch in the Harry Potter movies), she certainly looks the part of a crafty, archetypal villain – all that was missing was a curled mustache for her to twirl a la Snidely Whiplash. Her movements are off-balance (to illustrate Richard’s foreshortened leg or unhinged mind, take your pick), mostly crab-like in walking and awkward when kneeling, but surprisingly quick when angered.
Ms McKenna is at her thrilling best while Richard is malevolent and conniving, less convincing when meant to be menacing. What is missing is some depth to Richard’s villainy, the charisma that woos Lady Anne and beguiles Hastings, the chameleon-like shifts between nice and nasty. Ms. McKenna’s Richard is creepy, but not fully threatening.
|Martha Henry as Margaret. Photo: D. Hou|
Peter Hartwell’s colour palatte of red, white and black is also archetypal, and although it is very effectively lit with Kevin Fraser’s lighting design, one would have thought the Festival would invest more in a production that was sure to attract so much attention instead of leaving the set so spare and the costumes rather ordinary. Marc Desormeaux’s mixture of Gregorian chant, harp and celtic flute set a haunting musical score that was richer than the set itself.
Of the men-playing-men, most impressive was David Ferry who brings a surprising amount of spirit to the brief role of King Edward IV. When he appears just before his death, Mr. Ferry shows us a king hurriedly making peace in his kingdom, trying to race the grim reaper to create a lasting legacy. Also effective were Nigel Bennett as Hastings and Michael Spencer Davis as Duke of Clarence – both completely and touchingly taken aback to find they are betrayed by Richard. Andrew Gilles plays an enigmatic Lord Stanley with integrity, and Oliver Becker appears as the thuggish Ratcliffe – he plays a thug well, but one hopes Mr. Becker will be given a chance to break the mold into which he has been cast for the past few seasons.
|Yanna McIntosh as Queen Elizabeth. Photo: D. Hou|
|Roberta Maxwell as Duchess of York. Photo: D. Hou|
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” But one gets the feeling that if an audience member had stood up and yelled “NO!” to this Richard, he might actually have hesitated instead of immediately lopping off the dissenter’s head. Nevertheless, I plan to see it at least once more – if only to be chilled by those ghosts again.
Richard III continues in repertory until September 25 at the Tom Patterson Theatre.