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Sunday, 5 June 2011

Review: Girls Can’t What? Seana McKenna breaks a glass ceiling as Richard III

Seana McKenna as Richard III. Photo: D. Hou
Richard III
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
In reading the program notes and numerous interviews with both actor and director Miles Potter, however, one wonders if this was a deliberate choice, because the word vice keeps cropping up. The medieval stock character “Vice” is exactly that two-dimensional, stereotypical villain portrayed by Ms. McKenna. Immediately recognizable because he is so malformed or ugly, Shakespeare’s audiences would have known that Vice is present only to destroy Virtue. This is emphasized by the inclusion at the beginning of this production – before Richard’s opening soliloquy - of a type of morality play as the newly empowered Yorkists re-enact their murder of Henry IV and banishment of Queen Margaret.  It is a bold choice for such a well-known play, but it works to establish the “glorious summer” the court now enjoys that Richard despises.

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
Of the women-playing-women, both Yanna McIntosh as Queen Elizabeth and Martha Henry as Margaret hit the bull’s eye. Ms. McIntosh brings the passion and clarity for which she is renowned to the despairing Elizabeth who only once seems to come under Richard’s spell when (s)he grabs her for a ripping kiss. And no one does dripping venom better than Ms. Henry, whose Margaret’s wry bitterness is tinged with glee as she waits for her curses to be fufilled. (Opening night Ms. Henry actually made the audience gasp when she spitefully grabs the Duchess; and a little more physicality from Richard in that vein might have made him more terrifying.) Roberta Maxwell as the Duchess of York sounds a bit shrill in her final invective to her son, but it makes it evident that Richard is his mother’s son after all.
Roberta Maxwell as Duchess of York. Photo: D. Hou
As for the woman-playing-the-man, Ms. McKenna and her director do pour a number of nuances into Richard III that are intelligently wrought; Lady Anne spits at him and as he wipes it away he smells his hand as if it is honey.  His nephew the Duke of York claps him on his back and he starts, throwing the child to the floor and staring at him in a panic before resuming the “goodly uncle” act. The ghosts of Richard’s victims that appear to him before the final battle remain on stage, interfering with the campaign, removing Richard’s crown, making sure Richard meets Richmond and loses. But for all these clever touches the play as a whole lacks an oomph to make it a monumental triumph.

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.

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