Steven Barkhimer’s mastery of the role’s physicality is the key to his expression of its villainy.
Richard III by William Shakespeare. Directed by Robert Walsh. Presented by Actors’ Shakespeare Project at the Swedenborg Chapel, Cambridge, MA, through March 11.
By Ian Thal
The front door of the sanctuary in Cambridge’s Swedenborg Chapel bursts open with the sound of insistent drumming. The Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s cast of six march through the aisles announcing “Now it the winter of our discontent” before the familiar villainous soliloquy is taken up by Richard (Steven Barkhimer) alone.
It is 1471 and the War of the Roses between the Plantagenet Houses of York and Lancaster seems to have come to an end. York’s Edward IV (Jennie Israel) has been restored to the throne, and the rival claimant, Henry VI, not yet buried. Edward’s brother Richard, the Duke of Gloucester, has been richly rewarded for his support. Richard is one of Shakespeare’s great villain-protagonists and, so not surprisingly, his ambition will only be satisfied when he wears the crown currently on his brother’s head. Of course, we become fascinated by the devious and homicidal hunt (Richard is an Elizabethan ‘overreacher’ par excellence); the Bard arranges for us to revel vicariously in murderous machinations.
Barkhimer’s mastery of the role’s physicality is the key to his expression of its villainy. Because the symbolism-mad thinking of the Renaissance embraced the convenient notion that physical appearances reflected spiritual qualities, the Tudors imagined that Richard had to have been deformed. Shakespeare’s Richard describes his birth as an abomination in God’s creation:
Why, love forswore me in my mother’s womb:
And, for I should not deal in her soft laws,
did corrupt frail nature with some bribe,
To shrink mine arm up like a wither’d shrub;
To make an envious mountain on my back,
Where sits deformity to mock my body;
To shape my legs of an unequal size;
To disproportion me in every part,
Like to a chaos, or an unlick’d bear-whelp
That carries no impression like the dam.
(Act III, Scene 2)
The recent excavation of Richard’s body in Leicester disclosed that he indeed had scoliosis of the spine, but it was not a disability as severely envisioned as the popular imagination would have liked, and certainly not one that prevented him from engaging in combat. Nonetheless, we speak of Richard the dramatic character, not the historical figure and Barkhimer’s Richard is very much a man of asymmetry: he doesn’t just walk with a limp, but when he needs to turn, he has to pivot on the stronger leg. When he stands, it is at an angle resting his weight on the stronger leg. All of this is in key with his fascist-inspired costume (designed by Miranda Kau Giurleo); a strap, evoking the uniform of the Nazi Schutzstaffel as much as it does a sling,tightly secures his gloved, withered arm to his chest. Barkhimer makes great use of this grotesque’s physicality, showing how Richard uses it to play on the emotions of others, adjustments made whether he wants to feared or pitied.
The other five members of the cast play a multiplicity of roles. Jennie Israel’s standout turn in this production is as the former Queen Margaret. She leans in to the role’s frustrated sibyl dimension; this Margaret is unable to personally gain vengeance on Richard for the deaths of her husband Henry VI and their son, Prince Edward. So she is left to spew a prophecy about how Richard’s many crimes, accumulated by attaining power and maintaining it, will come back to him.
Mara Sidmore’s Anne Neville, Prince Edward’s widow, also generates a powerful presence, from the moment Richard interrupts her effort to bury her father-in-law, Henry VI. At first she is mournful and angry, and even after the whirlwind courtship she is still not fully wooed — even after she marries the monster. Paula Plum’s comic skills are put to great use in smaller roles, both as the Lord Mayor of London and alongside Deaon Griffin-Pressley as one of the murderers.
Michael Forden-Walker also underscores, effectively, how Buckingham turns from a Richard loyalist to a skeptic, questioning whether he has served an honorable cause by assisting an unprincipled usurper. (Despite the speed at which Shakespeare’s story unfolds, Richard reigned for twelve years.)
Griffin-Pressley also manages to make compelling the otherwise thankless role of the Earl of Richmond, who appears in Act V to vanquish Richard and restore order to the land. He invests this largely blank slate of a man, who would become Henry VII and the founder of the House of Tudor, with the spirit of virtuous idealism. (Of course, Shakespeare was savvy enough not to put a cynical word in the mouth of the grandfather of Queen Elizabeth I.)
As well as being an actor, ASP director Robert Walsh has long been a choreographer of violence on stage. So he knows how to handle the murders in this play. More interesting is how Walsh creates an undercurrent of menace, a white-knuckle build-up that leads into every violent act. An act of violence is never a mere incident or set piece so, even when one of the play’s more notorious slayings is placed off-stage, the impact is still felt in the audience. In Act V, which is dominated by the Battle of Bosworth Field, the cast and director call on the contributions of movement director Lindsey Coelli, who choreographs a martial dance as well as Richard’s eerie nightmare.
The Swedenborg Chapel’s sanctuary in a glorious example of Gothic revivalist architecture. The intricate textures of its stonework make for a marvelous palate for lighting designer Deb Sullivan, who makes expert use of varying degrees of chiaroscuro – sometimes emphasizing the light, sometimes the shadows.
Actors’ Shakespeare Project has titled this season “The Downfall of Despots” and many in the audience will no doubt interpret this staging as a gesture of resistance to the despotism of Donald Trump. But Trump is no Richard III. If we accept Shakespeare’s revved-up version of history, Richard may have taken an active role in killing his rivals, and he was nothing if not cunning, both in terms of his private and public behavior. And he had a way with pious words. But, as the past year has shown us, Trump surrounds himself with incompetents, and has made vulgarity and crassness a trademark. (In this sense, our President is far more like Alfred Jarry’s monumentally inept Ubu Roi). For me, Richard resembles another dangerous megalomaniac on the world stage today: Vladimir Putin, whose calculated talent for assassination and media manipulation could never be considered clownish.
Ian Thal is a playwright, performer, and theater educator specializing in mime, commedia dell’arte, and puppetry, and has been known to act on Boston area stages from time to time, sometimes with Teatro delle Maschere. He has performed his one-man show, Arlecchino Am Ravenous, in numerous venues in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. One of his as-of-yet unproduced full-length plays was picketed by a Hamas supporter during a staged reading. He is looking for a home for his latest play, The Conversos of Venice, which is a thematic deconstruction of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Formerly the community editor at The Jewish Advocate, he blogs irregularly at the unimaginatively entitled The Journals of Ian Thal, and writes the “Nothing But Trouble” column for The Clyde Fitch Report.