A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions
Richard III

The Royal Shakespeare Company productions of the eight history plays from “Richard II” through “Richard III” has concluded, after being cheered by audiences in  Stratford-upon-Avon, London, and  Michigan.  Staged for the Millennium, the plays were presented in historical chronological order.  After the first four appeared at Stratford-upon-Avon, the final four, the “Henry VI” trilogy and “Richard III,” were produced in partnership with the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.  Its visit to the university included not only the productions, but educational sessions, master classes, and outreach work throughout the State.  Finally, all eight plays were seen in both Stratford and London.

Witnessing the final four plays in two days at the Young Vic Theatre in London was an unforgettable experience, for not only were these early works made vivid by expert acting and direction, but history itself was clarified as one after another of Shakespeare’s dramatic scenes were brought to life.  Credit the Bard himself with selecting the best from the historical accounts he found in Raphael Holinshead’s Chronicles, versions not always strictly accurate, and at times biased, especially More’s account of Richard III, which he wrote under the patronage of the Tudors and painted Richard as the villain who inspired Shakespeare’s version.  Holinshead’s dull pages become dramatic scenes:  Joan of Arc inspiring the French and crowning a cowardly Dauphin; Queen Margaret and Suffolk having a passionate extra-marital affair, suggested by a phrase in the history book;  Richard III, whose deeds are in the Chronicles but whose character as a villain combining wit and Machiavellian scheming Shakespeare found in Marlowe, and improved upon.

Directed by Michael Boyd and designed by Tom Piper, the four productions were notable for their imagination, variety, and fast pace; the fighting was exciting, with ladders, scaling ropes, and hand-to-hand clashes, while the rhetoric of the speeches never overtook their clarity.  The many characters were clearly defined in their first appearances, and the fact that the same actors continued in the same roles (unless stabbed, beheaded, drowned, or otherwise done away with) throughout the plays.  You knew the Bishop of Winchester (Christopher Ettridge) was a bad lot who would make trouble later because in the series’ opening scene of Henry V’s funeral, he spits into the grave after the mourners leave.  Trapdoors hark back to the Elizabethan stage, and these were imaginatively used, representing Henry’s grave here, but also the exit for those killed in battle or otherwise.  Conveniently, the dead returned through the trapdoor as ghosts   Properties descended from above, like scaling ropes in the battle scenes or the white and red roses as York and Lancaster choose up sides in the Temple Garden. 

Joan of Arc, being the enemy of England, is treated by Shakespeare as a spirit-attended witch, and here three spirits accompany her in additional scenes (though even Shakespeare could not resist the prediction that she would one day be revered as a saint). The small size of the Young Vic with its open stage meant that the actors were in close proximity to the audience, and this enhanced the clarity of their speeches.  The Royal Shakespeare Company earns kudos for not making trendy cuts in the text, as with two currently abbreviated “Hamlet”s, Peter Brook’s version, and the Royal National’s.

“Richard III” was Shakespeare’s most popular play, to judge by the number of quarto (single-volume) editions printed in the author’s lifetime.  Beginning with his soliloquy at the end of Part III, Richard dominates the play that bears his name, and if Aidan McArdle seemed somewhat less dangerous than was Simon Russell Beale in an earlier RSC production, he was wittier, taking genuine delight in his evildoing.   A good director’s touch was to bring in at Richard’s coronation, mingling with the attendant crowd, the ghosts of those he had murdered and presaging their return before the battle.

Both the acting and the direction were excellent, and the venture is to be commended.  It is to be hoped that somewhere there exists a film of it, a record of this achievement that will long be remembered as the definitive version of Shakespeare’s history cycle.