The rise and fall of Richard III, American antihero

The British director and Portland star of Shakespeare's 16th-century political drama about a 15th-century king look to today's headlines

Director and star: Kyle and Turner talk about Richard. Photo: Jason Maniccia

Director and star: Kyle and Turner talk about Richard. Photo: Jason Maniccia

The humpbacked warrior-king Richard III met his doom in the Battle of Bosworth Field. But on a recent sunny morning in the courtyard garden of a Northeast Portland tea shop, Appomattox seems to be equally on Barry Kyle’s mind.

Kyle, the visiting British director of Northwest Classical Theatre Company’s soon-to-open production of Shakespeare’s “Richard III,” has been looking for parallels, and he finds them in roughly equivalent layers of time: 107 years between Richard’s battlefield death in 1485 and the play’s first production in 1592 (a consensus best guess); 148 years between the end of the American Civil War in 1865 and now. In both cases, Kyle asserts, the wounds of the respective wars are still fresh.

“This is an American ‘Richard III,’” he says. “That is to say, it’s as much about America now as it is about England in 1485.” Or 1592.

And he asserts that the America of today—a place he calls “the Disunited States of America”—is as obsessed with the unquiet ghosts of its own past as Elizabethan England was with the decades of war that unseated one royal line and established another in its place. Kyle has observed a “quite shocking decline in the political discourse of this country. … There are still elements of the Civil War being fought, which you see every four years in the red/blue images of the country.” Under such circumstances, Congressional deadlock is only a natural symptom of a much deeper national malaise.

Earliest known surviving portrait of Richard III, ca. 1520, after lost original. Paint on panel, Society of Antiquaries, London/Wikimedia Commons

Earliest known surviving portrait of Richard III, ca. 1520, after lost original. Paint on panel, Society of Antiquaries, London/Wikimedia Commons

Kyle, 65, is a veteran of the Royal Shakespeare Company, where he’s directed more than 30 productions (he was the first artistic director of the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon), and he’s still an honorary associate director there. But he’s spent much of his time in America since 1991, allowing him an insider/outsider view of life in these United States. He was founding artistic director of Swine Palace Productions in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and has directed on such prestigious American stages as Actor’s Theatre of Louisville and the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C. For several years he’s been on the theater faculty of the University of Missouri/Kansas City. He’s also stayed busy working around the world, from Moscow to Melbourne and spots between, including a Czech-language “King Lear” in Prague and a “Midsummer Night’s Dream” that sprawled across five acres on a hill overlooking Singapore. He’s directed such major British stars as Helen Mirren, Patrick Stewart, Kenneth Branagh, and Ben Kingsley, and an all-female “Richard III” in 2003 at the Globe in London, with Kathryn Hunter as the villainous usurper.

For all of that, Kyle’s a relaxed and affable fellow, with a humorist’s uptick to his rounded, lived-in face and a pint-sized porkpie hat that tops his appearance with understated jauntiness. He speaks in elocutionary yet clipped tones that reflect both his university training and his working-class background: “My Dad was a docker, when the docks were still in East London; my Mom was a factory worker.” That upbringing, in a gritty part of London that’s seen wave after wave of immigrants, may account at least partly for the political underpinnings that he brings to his theatrical understanding of the life and works of Shakespeare.

Kyle in rehearsal. Photo: Jason Maniccia

Kyle in rehearsal. Photo: Jason Maniccia

“Shakespeare’s plays are always written in a double time period,” Kyle notes – his own time, and the historical time in which they’re set. Add the time of any subsequent performances – in this case, 2013 – and you’re dealing with historical and political circumstances at least in triplicate. With “Richard III,” the playwright was deeply aware that he was writing about the last of the Plantagenet kings for an audience that would include Elizabeth, heir to the Tudor line that seized the throne. “Shakespeare was brilliant,” Kyle remarks drily, “at not getting himself arrested.”

Northwest Classical Theatre’s production will begin, Kyle says, “in what feels like a museum. A living museum of Richard III. It’s like an architectural dig.” Most of the players, the king excepted, will be in modern dress, and the people who come in to see the exhibition are political conservative types. Putin comes up in the conversation as the sort of person who rises when people are looking for a strong leader. Kyle thinks of the character of Buckingham as something like Karl Rove, not in personality but as the kingmaker who wants to be king – “an incredibly smooth, silky operator.”

Just how much the American twist on the Elizabethan play will remain in the background and how much it will be evident to the audience will come clear when this production opens Friday night. “I would say certainly it’s the driving force for us as the actors,” says Grant Turner, Northwest Classical Theatre’s artistic director, who is also playing the title role.

Richard, physically twisted and deviously ambitious and so ruthlessly out front about his lust for power that he becomes almost a sex symbol, is such a self-congratulatory and over-the-top villain as Shakespeare writes him that many actors have played him broadly, as a cynically comic character. “One of the first things Barry said to me was, ‘He’s not a comedian, but he’s very aware of the concept of irony. And not afraid to use it,” Turner says. “He can be a bit anarchic. Barry keeps pushing me to let go of my head. I’m pushing to find out how dangerous he can be.”

Kyle elaborates. Richard II, he notes, wrote a book on French cookery (“no wonder the warlords despised him”). “If Richard III had written a book, it would have been the masterpiece of political incorrectness.”

The play begins, Kyle also stresses, in the present tense – the famous, and less famously satirical, “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer” speech. Plenty of fighting is to come. But as the play opens, those long decades of war that began with the Hundred Years’ War and moved on to the Wars of the Roses have ended. It’s peacetime. And the warriors are disgruntled.

Sensing opportunity, Richard makes his play, and triumphs, and then falls. And as with modern global politics, Turner suggests, the situation is far from black and white: “Even if Richard isn’t the solution, the person behind him isn’t necessarily the solution, either.”

Kyle has directed in huge spaces and small ones, but possibly none quite so intimate as the Shoe Box Theatre, which Northwest Classical Theatre Company calls home. The little theater holds 36 seats, which for this show are arranged in a couple of rows along either side of a traverse stage, which means essentially a runway down the middle.

What does the director feel about that? “I love it. Absolutely love it. I’ve no interest in putting Shakespeare in public auditoria. I’ve done that.” The Shoebox, he adds, “greatly resembles The Other Place in Stratford. And that space was a revelation when it came to doing Shakespeare. It fundamentally changed the way the Royal Shakespeare Company did Shakespeare. The Shoebox, like The Other Place, is like a lens. The camera is on you. You’ve got to tell the truth. And if you don’t, the audience will know.”

Turner in rehearsal. Photo: Jason Maniccia

Turner in rehearsal. Photo: Jason Maniccia

Or, as Turner puts it: “In that arena, the audience cannot be passive. It has to be active. And as an actor it’s your job to keep them active.”

Northwest Classical Theatre’s production arrives, serendipitously, as interest in Richard III is cresting thanks to the recent discovery of his bones beneath a city car park in Leicester. (The discovery has set off a new mini-civil war between Leicester, eager to capitalize on the tourist dollars bound to follow the notorious king’s bones, and the wealthier city of York, which is making a play to seize the bones and bucks for itself.) Along with the discovery has come a reappraisal of Richard’s purported nastiness. Maybe he didn’t order the young princes killed, many suggest. Maybe he was a forceful man in a forceful age; a strong leader who ruled fairly within the understandings of his time. In fact, the rehabilitation of Richard’s reputation has been going on at least since 1951, when Josephine Tey published her popular detective novel “The Daughter of Time,” in which her bed-ridden detective hero makes the case that Richard was mostly the victim of a Tudor propaganda campaign.

Tey’s conclusion is a far cry from the view of Holinshed’s Chronicles, from which Shakespeare drew the outlines of his play: “(L)ittle of stature, ill-featured of limbs, crookbacked, his left shoulder much higher than his right, hard-favored of visage, and such as in states is called ‘warly,’ in other men otherwise; he was malicious, wrathful, envious, and from afore his birth ever froward. … He was close and secret, a deep dissembler, lowly of countenance, arrogant of heart, outwardly companionable where he inwardly hated, not letting to kiss whom he thought to kill; despitious and cruel, not for evil will alway, but ofter of ambition and either for the surety or increase of his estate. Friend and foe was much what indifferent, where his advantage grew; he spared no man’s death whose life withstood his purpose.”

Of course, Raphael Holinshed and his collaborators were writing with a political agenda, too, and no doubt to keep the noose from tightening around their own necks. The truth is a slippery enough beast even in the present, let alone five centuries after all the witnesses have died. Not to press the modern American parallels too much, but: is received history little more than dispatches from the journalistic ancestors of MSNBC and Fox News?

*

Northwest Classical Theatre Company’s “Richard III” opens Friday, September 20, at the Shoe Box Theatre, 2110 S.E. 10th Avenue, Portland, and continues Thursdays-Sundays through October 13. For tickets or schedule details, call 971-244-3740 or email nwclassical@hotmail.com.

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