After the smug and grating ham-fest that was Kevin Spacey’s Richard of Gloucester (last year at BAM), I had been looking forward to a pleasant vacation away from that “bottled spider,” that “foul bunch-back’d toad” who makes Shakespeare’s Richard III such a seductive yet frustrating affair. Let’s be honest: It’s a tough play, second only to Hamlet in length and not nearly as full of great poetry. And while the title villain is charmingly despicable, he invites overacting on the part of stars and worse, overthinking on the part of directors. You can enjoy Olivier’s iconic turn in the 1955 movie. You can curse fate for missing Antony Sher’s apparently brilliant performance – skittering about on medieval braces – for the RSC in 1984. For my part, I’ve seen too many mediocre attempts: Denzel Washington, all attitude, in Central Park; a vertically challenged Richard with Peter Dinklage. I had given up on seeing a Richard III that could thrill, frighten and satisfy as much as it should.
Until now, that is. Mark Rylance’s take on the character is a revelation: repulsive, pathetic, cunning and plausible all at once. There are many insults hurled at Richard – many of them, as noted above, animal-based. But no one calls him a dummy. In Rylance’s gutsy comic turn, Richard simpers like a royal family’s idiot son. Dull-eyed and slack-jawed, the wretch’s withered left arm is pinned to his side, the paralyzed hand the size of a toddler’s (the actor wears a creepy prosthetic). How could this sickly imbecile be a danger?
Of course, the "I, Claudius" act is just a front for bloody ambition. Richard is always good for a few nasty chuckles, but Rylance clowns it up shamelessly. His apish glee upon seducing the mourning Lady Anne (Joseph Timms) is almost infectious. And his shrimpy skittering is contrasted nicely by Angus Wright’s strapping, manly Buckingham, the lord who helps Richard murder and slander his way to the crown.
As with Twelfth Night, director Tim Carroll and a sterling, all-male ensemble do wonders with the Elizabethan-era staging, giving the verse its weight but keeping the action fresh. While the mood is perforce darker and bleaker than in the lighthearted Twelfth Night, the production still maintains a jaunty tone that hovers somewhere between medieval storybook and Renaissance pageant. It’s not a totally faithful rendition; the character of mad Queen Margaret has been cut, a choice that may disappoint some, but which I didn’t miss. (This early Shakespeare often lapses into a formal patterning that places cursing or damning rituals over drama.) The supporting cast is excellent. Liam Brennan gives a rapturous, unfussy account of Clarence’s nightmare in the Tower; and Matthew Schechter and Hayden Signoretti, as the doomed Prince Edward and the Duke of York, are admirably self-possessed young performers.
Expect to find yourself laughing places you didn’t think permissible, since the production as a whole has a black streak of humor. It doesn’t so much sanction Richard’s gleeful, bloody rise to power as coolly observes it as part of the rhythms of power. And Rylance delivers the most unexpectedly poignant post-nightmare soliloquy (act five) I’ve ever seen. The sequence, in which the psychopathic villain is assailed by nihilistic self-pity, usually falls flat, a case of “too little, too late.” Rylance’s reading is so unfeigned, so childlike in its simplicity, I almost felt sympathy for the devil.
David Cote is theater editor and chief drama critic of Time Out New York. He is also a contributing critic on NY1’s On Stage.