Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival is presenting Druid Shakespeare: Richard III at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater. It turns out to be a rich theatrical experience, full of biting humor, good acting and freewheeling 15th Century English pageantry.
Director Garry Hynes stages this early Shakespearean melodrama with some fresh inspiration and freedom, with Druid's Aaron Monaghan playing the bitter Richard III and a slim cast of 12 actors, most of whom play two or three roles. Ms. Hynes cuts through most of the play’s historical tangles to concentrate on the play’s devious plot, which is solely concerned with the bloody rise of Richard becoming King Richard III. The play has always been a resounding showpiece, a whooping holiday for actors since Shakespeare penned it in 1592, and Monaghan gives it his due today.
Over all these years, this bloody butcher of a drama was considered a showcase for stars like the Laurence Olivier's film in the 1950s, or more recently, Al Pacino, Ian McKellen, Kevin Spacey and Ralph Fiennes. Richard of Gloucester gives an actor magnificent opportunities to do everything that every actor dreams of doing, from wooing and winning a princess, Lady Anne (played in this production by Siobhan Cullen), whose husband Richard VI and father-in-law Richard he has murdered. At the end of the play, he gets to die all over the stage in a splendid, hand-to-hand fight (movement and fight choreography is by David Bolger) at the finale of a great battle with Richmond, played by the very regal Frank Blake, who kills Richard and is crowned king, bringing this British nightmare reign to an end and England into its Elizabethan era.
Monaghan emphasizes the man's bitterness sprinkled with the dark sardonic humor of Richard’s bloody march to get the crown of England. This is fair enough. Richard is one of many Shakespearean villains who make a joke out of their villainy and share it gleefully with the audience. Think of Iago in Othello and Edmund in King Lear. But in Monoghan's performance, under the humor there is always a cruelty and an embitterment. In his first words, spoken from what looks like an open grave or pit, “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York…” In that first speech, he explains why he is taking revenge on the world, because of the physical deformities – he was born crippled with a painful distorted neck – which nature has imposed on him, and are so grievous that “dogs bark when he passes by.”
With these initial words by Shakespeare, and uttered by Monaghan, the play begins by making Richard seem human, which is a stunt in itself. Monaghan has a voice for the verse and all its dark emotion and witty nuances. He then rises up and straps the leather brace on his right leg and balances himself with two sticks, and launches into Richard’s appalling career of crime on his way to the throne. He cuts down anyone who stands between him and the crown, and once he becomes King Richard he is rather pitiable as he wrestles almost insanely for some kind of self-justification.
All of the supporting actors are excellent and contribute their varied performances to a slew of royal roles in this three-hour production. Early on in the play, old Queen Margaret (played beautifully by Marie Mullen), looking like a half-crazed ghost all wrapped in white dress, cuts across the stage uttering her late husband Henry VI's name, a curse that reverberates throughout the play as an evil obbligato to Richard’s murderous march.
The stark scenery is by Francis O'Conner, who provides colorful period costumes all lit by James F. Ingalls. Action, color, music and the swirl of Shakespearean words are all blended in this production of Richard III.