Richard III @ Queens Theatre

This play is always a star vehicle, and Lloyd Mulvey’s Richard put everyone else into shadow. He smiled, limped, cringed, and gamboled his way across center stage. A faint conspiratorial grin shadowed his face throughout the whole play, even lingering when he bellowed for his horse in the final battle. He hooked his audience early and reeled us in all night. More comic than terrible and more devious than tyrannous, he played the evil king as nihilistic trickster. No, it didn’t remind me of anyone. Besides we saw the show several days before Indictment Monday.

One of the textual changes Titan Theatre made was opening with a few lines from Queen Margaret’s curse before shifting to Richard’s winter of discontent. The curses, growled out with power, dignity, and supporting stage lighting by Angela Iannone as Margaret, formed a narrative backbone around which Richard twined his plots, speeches, and assassinations. By foregrounding Iannone’s Margaret, and later emphasizing that nearly every one of Richard’s victims remembered her curse before dying, the production emphasized a battle of the sexes topos, in which victimized women resisted Richard, at first ineffectively but finally decisively.

Lloyd Mulvey as Richard

The most powerful scene of the production for me was the seduction of Lady Anne (1.2). Watching Richard bully and cajole her is always painful, but in post-Weinstein America certain elements of the scene stood out. Maggie Wetzel’s Anne emphasized youth, beauty, and a kind of naiveté, so that her line, “I would I knew thy heart,” felt oddly moving and revealing of her vulnerability. She started fierce, defending a casket that in this production contained the body of her dead husband (killed by Richard) instead of her father-in-law and former monarch (also killed by Richard). In addition to offering her his breast to stab, Richard in this staging grabbed Anne hard by the wrist and held her, thus performing a physical domination that was shocking and, in my memory of past productions, not always so explicit. Richard would repeat the grab later (4.4) when negotiating with Queen Elizabeth, whose sons he had just murdered, for the hand of her daughter. In the latter scene, Richard punctuated his not-seduction with a forceful and painfully non-consensual kiss on Elizabeth’s lips. I often read the second attempted seduction as a failure and an index that Richard in act 4 has lost some of the sinister charisma the drove his schemes in act 1. The forced kiss in this production suggested otherwise, at least in terms of his aggression.

Richard grabs Anne

After the brutal wooing of Anne, Richard in soliloquy solicited the audience for approval. “Was ever woman in this humor wooed?” he cackled to the front row of the small theater. “Was ever woman in this humor won?” The audience laughed with him, as he wanted us to. I felt ashamed that we did. The patriarchal culture that values “winning” over consent isn’t just a matter of Hollywood studios or, let’s say, New York real estate moguls with politics in their futures. It’s part of our literary and dramatic heritage, and Shakespeare knew well how hard it is to resist.

Last year in early November, just before the world turned orange, I saw a brilliant and searing performance of Richard by the Dutch actor Hans Kesting that showed how irresistible narcissism and unbounded need can be. On our way out of the BAM opera house that night, my buddy Erik turned to me in admiration and said, “Well, I guess I don’t ever need to see Richard III again.” I felt the same way at that moment, that Kesting had hit the part so hard that it felt like a definitive Richard for the looming Age of Trump. (Rebecca Mead in the New Yorker later called that show “The First Great Theatrical Work of the Trump Era.“)

But of course I eagerly took students to this much less Trump-centered production by Titan at the Queens Theatre last Friday. There can be no final or absolute Richard, only a spool of performances of the iconic villain of Shakespearean politics, who fascinates by betraying his family and his audiences with painful pleasure.

King Edward and doomed family

In the Titan production, each time Richard killed someone or had someone killed, he painted a red vertical stripe on the back wall of the stage. Three vertical red strips present at the opening also marked the “III” of his royal name. The wall grew messy and full of red paint over the two hours traffic of the stage, bearing witness to the bodies that sit behind the theatrical pain we love to watch.

Especially in a world in which fairy-tale Richmond / Henry VII’s are hard to discern on the horizon, Richard III feels like a hard but necessary play. 

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