By William Shakespeare
Directed by Lindsay Posner
Old Globe Theatre, San Diego
June 3 – September 29, 2012
Envy the Tudors. In Shakespeare, they found perhaps the greatest propagandist of all time. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the pages of Richard III. As Richard’s demise led to the rise of the Tudor dynasty, it was in Elizabeth’s best interest that his death, and her grandfather’s ascendance to the throne, be viewed as just and right. Richard III makes the case with a vengeance.
In Shakespeare’s carefully crafted world, Richard III is the father of all despots—Stalin, but without the warm, cuddly parts. A vengeful psychopath, his lust for power is secondary to his desire to see all around him suffer. If you called Richard a murderer, it would be praise by faint damnation.
The play recapitulates the last years of the War of the Roses, a longstanding civil war between the royal houses of York and Lancaster. The Globe kindly provides a family tree, as it seems every English nobleman from this era was named Edward, Henry or Richard.
Throughout the play, Richard’s personal viciousness seems an order of magnitude beyond Iago, Edmund or any other Shakespearean villain. He thrives on other people’s pain.
Perhaps his most vicious trait is dishonesty. Even when he tells the truth, it comes shaped like a lie. Jay Whittaker plays the tyrant with snarling defiance. His Richard plots, manipulates and threatens with glee. He parlays his physical deformities into a form of profound extortion.
Nowhere is this more unnerving than in his ongoing efforts to seduce the women around him. He is not interested in sexual conquest but rather subjugation. They find him monstrous and that only makes his successes sweeter.
Though they are unequal to the task, at least the women show backbone. The production is strongest when Queen Margaret (Robin Moseley), Cecily Duchess of York (Deborah Radloff), Elizabeth Woodville (Dana Green) and Lady Anne (Vivia Font) defy Richard, though he often seems amused by their attempts. Margaret’s condemnations (and Moseley’s ferocity) are particularly astringent.
The men, on the other hand, are fearful milksops, eager to curry favor and gain through Richard’s machinations. Henry Duke of Buckingham (Jacques C. Smith) runs the gamut, from subservient toady to conflicted traitor.
The Globe builds on Richard’s obvious character flaws to create an intentionally claustrophobic and paranoid production, which evokes comparisons between Richard and more contemporary strongmen. The set includes Orwellian graffiti and Iron Curtain propaganda posters. The uniforms are reminiscent of Nazi brownshirts, complete with submachine guns.
Lindsay Posner’s fast-paced direction overcomes what could be a very plodding story. But the clear highlight is Whittaker, who simultaneously makes Richard more contemporary and more inhuman. You laugh and feel guilty afterwards.
Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot, Idi Amin—Richard seems quaint by comparison, his murderous aspirations so piecemeal. And yet, he epitomizes the archetype—a man for whom morality is little more than a base inconvenience. Richard III isn’t built to soar the way Henry V is. But the Globe deserves credit for a capable, and very dark, production.