It’s not often the Shakespeare’s Globe productions make it to the US, so when they arrive it is cause for riotous celebration. So … it is with a great deal of disappointment that I report that the recent production of Shakespeare’s Richard III at the Belasco Theatre starring Mark Rylance (born 1960) is an ill-conceived, ramshackle conception. This is a great shame as Rylance is one of the most gifted actors of his generation – however, I doubt I have ever seen a more wrong-headed interpretation of Shakespeare’s crookbacked anti-hero.
Problems with Richard III start at the top and the rot continues down. As written, Richard is a charming monster. He revels in his villainy, and his constant asides to the audience make us complicit in his monstrosity. His ego is enormous and his self-satisfaction over the most wretched and heinous crimes become droll in his endless self-regard and delight in manipulation. In short, it is a role for an actor with a High Comic sensibility.
Sadly, High Comedy is not in Rylance’s bag of tricks. He is an expert Low Comedian, and while he does get laughs with Richard, the overall conception never comes alive. Imagine Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau disguised as Richard III, and you get the idea. There is a great deal of business between Rylance and the audience in the first few rows, where he is mugging for a response, while some of his most malefic lines are thrown away as under-the-breath asides. This is not High Comic villainy, it’s a homicidal Nigel Bruce. It is a novel approach, but that is all.
Richard III is presented in repertory with Twelfth Night, and in strives to recreate an Elizabethan theatrical experience. True to the time, all women’s roles are played by men. I have seen this work wonderfully well in the past (I recall the troupe Cheek By Jowl in a series of Shakespearean productions at BAM 20 years ago that were stunning), but the effect here is more Monty Python than Renaissance theater. Joseph Timms, as Lady Anne, is so heavily made up that he seems more like a waxwork figure. (White pancake makeup applied with a trowel, one would assume, to ape portraits of Elizabeth.) Sad to say that equally dire is Samuel Barnett, as Queen Elizabeth, who unfortunately resembles Timms in makeup to such a degree that it’s almost impossible to tell one from the other.
Richard the III is really Richard’s play, and there aren’t many other good roles; however, what is here is poorly played. Angus Wright, as Buckingham, looks and sounds like Raymond Massey … and is just as bad an actor. But perhaps the most egregious offender of the evening is Kurt Egyiawan as the Duchess of York, and later as Richmond -- in a lifetime of watching Shakespeare on stage, I have never seen a more wretched performance. Only Liam Brennan, as Clarence, seems to make something of his part. I hope to see more of him in the future.
Tim Carroll directs and makes rather a hash of it. The staging is unimaginative and, at times, simply ridiculous. Troubled by dreams of his victims, Carroll parades them backstage in white sheets holding candles; more Our Gang than Halloween horror. How such a gruesome play was rendered so bloodless may be the great mystery of this production. It ends with Richard and Richmond locked in mortal combat – but it never convinces. Nor does it help that – in an attempt to create a true Elizabethan experience – the entire cast gather onstage at curtain’s fall and pad through a clumsy quadrille.
We are seeing Twelfth Night later this week; it is Stephen Fry’s Broadway debut, and perhaps his intelligence, taste and sense of fun will positively impact on the production. We can but hope.