Theater Review: The Metaphysical Urgency of “Richard III”

Actor John Douglas Thompson can captivate, seduce, and thrill any audience in any play, which is exactly what he did, once again, in Shakespeare & Company’s enthralling new production of The Life and Death of King Richard III.

John Douglas Thompson (Richard III) and Lady Anne () share a romantic moment in the Shakespeare & Company production of Richard III

John Douglas Thompson (Richard III) and Leia Espericueta (Lady Anne) share a romantic moment in the Shakespeare & Company production of Richard III. Photo: Kevin Sprague

The Life and Death of King Richard III by William Shakespeare. Directed by Jonathan Croy. Conceived and adapted by Tony Simotes. Staged by Shakespeare & Company at the Founders’ Theatre through September 2.

Reviewed By Susan Miron

For 35 summers spent in the Berkshires, I, like many summer residents, blithely took for granted the Berkshires’ embarrassment of artistic riches as if they were some kind of inalienable right attached to Berkshires house ownership or rental.

Last summer, knowing my time in this paradise was up, experiencing theater took on a metaphysical urgency. I opted for total immersion in Shakespeare & Company productions, attempting to see all of them. Two plays have haunted me ever since: Othello, a tour de force featuring the brilliant actor John Douglas Thompson (who had spent the year before playing Othello first at Shakespeare & Company and then in New York City winning a host of awards) and The Dreamer Examines His Pillow, also featuring Thompson and directed by the wonderful actress Tod Randolph.

Reader, I was hooked. I made two theater pilgrimages to New York just to see John Douglas Thompson in the Irish Repertory Theater’s mesmerizing production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones in November and The Forest with Dianne Wiest in May. It became clear that Thompson, although pegged a Shakespeare specialist (by the New York Times) can captivate, seduce, and thrill any audience in any play, which is exactly what he did, once again, in Shakespeare and Company’s enthralling new production of The Life and Death of King Richard III.

Seeing this excellent three hour production, with the glorious Mr. Thompson as the emotionally stunted and physically damaged Richard III was an extraordinary experience partly because its large cast featured so many of my favorite Shakespeare & Company actors. Annette Miller, here fiery and emotionally withering as Richard’s mother, I had enjoyed in GoldaRichard III’s Lord Hasting and Lord Chamberlain, was last year’s terrific Hamlet.

Those who witnessed Nigel Gore in his searing performance in last fall’s Boston production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with Tina Packer are still probably recovering from the shock of his transformation from henpecked nebbish to Fury itself. Featured as a small army of men in the five play marathon (Aug. 25-27) Women of Will with Tina Packer, Mr. Gore was a great Duke of Buckingham here.

Finally, Queen Elizabeth was brought to smoldering life by the extraordinary Tod Randolph, who gave such exquisite pleasure over the years (in Shakespeare & Company) as Lady Macbeth, Tatiana (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), Virginia Woolf (A Room of One’s Own), Desdemona (Othello), Virginia (Vita and Virginia), Portia (The Merchant of Venice), Rose (Enchanted April), and Stephanie (Duet for One), to name a few roles which, to me, she simply owns. To have Tod Randolph in important scenes with Mr. Thompson was, for this theatergoer, simply as good as theater gets.

Leia Espericueta, a new actress to the company, was a very compelling Lady Ann, and Johnny Lee Davenport as King Edward/Blunt brought some unexpected humor to the proceedings. As he put it after the show, “The levity is there. You can’t find tragedy without the humor.”

John Douglas Thompson: "Knocking on the doors" of Shakespeare's text.

John Douglas Thompson: Knocking at the door of the words in Shakespeare

While the direction (by Jonathan Croy based on a concept by Tony Simotes, sidelined for health reasons), the gorgeous costumes, and fight scene were all excellent, the evening’s success nevertheless fell on the humped shoulders of its Richard, Duke of Gloucester. Wearing a large hump (which Thompson insisted upon) on his shoulder, with his arm in a leather sling, Richard III/Thompson surprisingly opens the play lying on the floor as he recites the famous monologue “Now is the winter of our discontent.”

Mr. Thompson explained in the question and answer period after the play that for him, Richard III—and all Shakespeare—is all about mining the text. “It all starts in my head, and then it happens in my body,” he remarked in a recent interview. Someone asked how long it took him to learn his over 1,000 lines, to which he laughed that he was still learning them, still “knocking at the door of the words” to reveal the soul of his character.

“I want to know why he does what he does. It’s all there in the language, and I know I will find it.” One of Mr. Thompson’s gifts is his beautiful elocution; Shakespeare has rarely sounded so clear or so immediate. Thompson believes Richard’s toxic relationship with his mother to be the root of his difficulties (to be kind) with other women, and his physical deformities—the famous hump, a bad leg and arm—to have shaped or misshaped his psyche. To Thompson, Richard III is “a megalomaniacal psychopath whose villainy outstrips Iago. And before he can develop a soul or a conscience, he dies.” But while he lives and is played by John Douglas Thompson, Richard III is a character no one will soon forget.

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