Richard III, Shakespeare Theatre Company

Who is Richard III, really? There's the historical figure, of course, the one untimely ripped from the foundations of a parking garage in Leicester a few years ago, a king that probably wasn't so bad as popular imagining would have him be. And there is, of course, the source of that image, created by Shakespeare and beloved of audiences since the sixteenth century. Shakespeare gives us a deliciously theatrical character, equal parts historical person, medieval Vice figure of the morality plays, and original creation, capable of lying and cheating his way into power but not of holding onto it. And then of course, every production of Shakespeare's play must make its own judgement of who Richard is, forged by directors, actors, and designers. 

As Michael Kahn's final season at the helm of the Shakespeare Theatre Company begins to wind down, it's David Muse who has taken on the challenge of defining this newest Richard, and actor Matthew Rauch who embodies him on the Harman stage. This Richard is cinched into braces and specially tailored shirts, cool and calculating, and this Richard III, unfortunately, is more concerned with staging the violent results of Richard's machinations than exploring the man himself.

Photo of Matthew Rauch as Richard, Duke of Gloucester in Richard III by Scott Suchman.

The production pulls all of the violence that Shakespeare leaves unseen onto the grisly operating theatre of a set by designer Debra Booth, turning the play into a cavalcade of macabre horrors as we watch stabbings, drownings, shootings, beheadings, strangulations, and more as the ensemble swarms around in a murder percussion chorus. The tension of the play becomes a bloody slouching towards ruin, and Muse's cuts to the text take away from the nuance of the play. So much is cut that it seems Muse felt that supertitles were necessary to keep the audience on track with the who's-who, except that they have a tendency to appear literal moments after a character tells the audience exactly who is about to enter. "Look, here comes the queen, Elizabeth!" is followed by the anvil of "ELIZABETH, QUEEN OF ENGLAND" as soon as the actor walks onstage to the accompaniment of blaring electric guitars and bass. Shakespeare does the work for us, so why doesn't Muse trust the audience to follow?

Photo of the cast of Richard III by Scott Suchman.

Were Rauch given more reign to center the play on his Richard, we might come away with a different experience of this Richard III. The relationship between Rauch's Richard and disability is interesting, with a primary emphasis on the aesthetics of costume designer Murell Horton's braces that shift from signifiers of disability to fetishistic power and in-grouping. It's a fascinating shift, but one that we don't take time to explore in the production beyond the visual, with the exception of one brief scene of vulnerability near the very end of the production. This glimpse of the man behind the murderer is riveting, and I wish there was more time for it. Rauch is also supported by an excellent ensemble, with standout moments by Lizan Mitchell as Margaret of Anjou and Derrick Lee Weeden as Lord Hastings.

This Richard III is a horror play about violence and its effect on those who partake and those who have to navigate a system of power that fetishizes it.  When Evelyn Spahr's Richmond arrives, it feels like a breath of fresh air wafting through the grimdark parade.  Shakespeare's text wants us as an audience to reckon with why we so enjoy Richard's villainy, but Muse's play has a certain smugness as it demands that we confront each violent act of slaughter--do we want to keep watching now? How about now?? Unfortunately, my answer was, not really, no.


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