Our winter of discontent is upon us, judging from midnight presidential campaign Twitter outbursts and anxiety inducing Gallup polls. There is no better time to revisit Shakespeare’s Richard III, then now: the story of a quicksilver-tongued megalomaniac trapped in a “rudely stamped” body who bends and breaks the law.
Post5 theater presents their dysphoria-out-of-order production in a sterile land which hints at a Peronist dictatorship. The women of court are hung up in pin curls and neat tailored suits, with flashy kicks and red lips. The men march and gesture in uniforms befitting a Stalinist purge, except the cuckold Buckingham who wears false regalia satin chested. Political speeches are given by circle flood light to the gleam of an old ribbon mic.
This production removes Shakespeare’s history within a tragedy and tragedy of history from the haunting specter of a devil looking man, who according to superstition, must have a soul to match his bearing. Matt Smith’s Richard does not ride us like a saddle into hell. His Richard is not the stuff of official portraits and nightmares, but leans in like the poet Christy Brown- his menacing is smart and rapacious. He wears a constant pain in a struggle to keep his center of gravity which pitches his character into more arrogance. He spins chaos out of the wreckage he creates with a honey coating that traps humans like flies. His solitary comments break out into a sarcastic wit that is like the sharp points of an iron maiden closing. This Richard is a dark deformed soul eaten by the cancer of hate. Smith’s Richard blames his mother and god for deformity and sees his physical frame as a false prison, a punishment without due cause and has lost his sense of reality. He spreads the tyranny of his rage for a simple reason, he was not loved.
Director Patrick Walsh takes an Occam’s razor to Richard III, which could call for scores of cast members, is tuned down to 7. The production is crisply skewed like the psychology of a person who can’t see beyond their pain. Walsh works with people who have cerebral palsy and takes the play back to the nature vs nurture debate of motivations. He casts a sympathetic and sophisticated eye on the interior life of Richard. He keeps Richard’s ornate duplicity, much like the armor that would’ve hid his real life disfigurement. Walsh uses the whole stage like a Dada chessboard with a film noir sensibility and the lighting casts long shadows as Welles’ Citizen Cane. The scene transitions aren’t hidden with smoke and mirrors, rather intricate opportunities which magnify character’s personalities. The psychological nightmares also hang on Walsh’s choice to keep lines that create a rhythm of themes: Richard’s braced arm, the alabaster arms of the innocent princes who are delivered to the arms of Abraham which cradle them in death.
The cast has a natural delivery and chemistry between them. It’s less a production where an over effort shines to give the best to Shakespeare, rather a loving craft to their characters. The hedged battle by the keepers of the kingdom, the women, become focused scenes that accentuate their power. When Clarence (Isabella Buckner) tells the prophetic dream of dying, she’s seated in a barbershop chair. Rusty Tennant as Brackenbury holds a safety razor to the edge of her scalp. As the blade swipes against her skin, the veins of her neck pulse forward, a damning red light covers their motions and she delivers an aching and real terror of a closing future. The anxiety is caught up in the moment, shifting the suspense from the moment before Clarence is killed, to the foreshadowing of murder.
There is a medieval saying: “Keep a king close like a fire, but do not get burned.” Rusty Tennant plays the jovial sycophant Buckingham with the farcical undertones of a Clue game character at the outset of his support for Richard, but with a gracious timing quickens to a PR man about town. Walsh places Richard between two robed monks, kissing a bible like the historic Queen Elizabeth I did during her coronation. Below the shaded triad, Tennant’s dapper appearance turns sinister at the mic, his flashy form becomes calculated authority. When Richard requests the execution of the two princes, Tennant’s knee-jerk response of disbelief is as palpable as the sweat on his brow.
Elizabeth Parker, who has played some edgy and sexy roles this year in Portland productions of Blasted and Desdemona: A Play about a Handkerchief, brings her skilled sensuality and independence to the role of Queen Elizabeth Gray. She strikes an imposing and lithe figure in mourning the death of her two sons by Richard, who under her gaze becomes a shrunken shell of a man. We hear her rolling tide of words as he tries to con her into giving up her daughter in marriage like the headlines of a modern media war between the Farrows and Allens:
What were I best to say? her father’s brother
Would be her lord? or shall I say, her uncle?
Or, he that slew her brothers and her uncles?
Under what title shall I woo for thee,
That God, the law, my honour and her love,
Can make seem pleasing to her tender years?
Post5’s production shows how modern play Shakespeare’s writing is, in the sense that the audience is not given the option of moralizing Richard’s behavior or being moralized to. Richard is an actor being played by an actor. He constructs himself as a public spectacle to gain popularity for his coronation. His double meaning words replace one political fiction with another political fiction. If Hamlet is the first representation of modern man in crisis, Richard is of a politician seeking to create a new warped status quo off the foundation of the former regime. Some describe Shakespeare as a pessimist, but in our uncertain political times, he seems more a realist.