Shakespeare has a way of creating likeable unlikable villains. We enjoy seeing their ambition thwarted and their crimes punished, but we equally delight at their charms, their wits, and the enormity of their complots. From Iago to Aron to Richard III—only a lap cat away from a Bond villain—we revel in the depths they are willing to descend to achieve their horrific aims.
It’s this dichotomy of delight and disgust that makes People’s Light and Theatre’s production of RICHARD III such a treat—a feast with many courses, each richly flavored and deeply textured. Pete Pryor’s performance as Richard is intensely physical: he jumps down large junkyard steps, chases enemies with a giant doubled-crutched leap; the constant labored walking alone must be tremendously wearying. When you add to this physicality a performance which carries the audience through each soulful component of this extremely complex character, it becomes a truly remarkable rendition. Pryor’s Richard disgusts, but he also allows us to pity him.
Richard is ruthless, bloodthirsty, violent, sadistic, unattractive—yet, the audience is entertained by his unabashed evil. We laugh as he awkwardly capers across the stage seducing a woman he helped widow over the body of the king he daggered. We shiver when he becomes the monster he has told us he is with a look or a change in his tone. Is his wickedness born from experience? Was he really brought into this world with teeth ready to tear at flesh for sport? The root of his evil is as unclear as his true intentions. Richard desires the throne and is willing to leapfrog over brother and brother and nephews (oh my!), but perhaps he is doing it all for kicks, to alleviate the boredom and rid himself of the bad aftertaste of a hard fought peace (cf this play’s prequel, 3 Henry VI).
Pryor’s performance is equaled by a cast who impress playing multiple roles. The dual casting creates some delightful ironies: Carl Clemons-Hopkins plays Richmond (who defeats Richard) and Catesby (Richard’s devotee); Alda Cortese is Margaret (the cursing widow of Henry VI) and Edward (Richard’s brother and his initial impediment to the throne).
Mary Elizabeth Scallen delivers a powerful performance as Elizabeth, Edward’s widow. Scallen goes toe-to-toe with Pryor in a scene perfectly staged by director Samantha Reading: Richard tries to convince Elizabeth to woo her daughter in his name, after essentially confessing to having ordered the death of her sons, his nephews.
Scallen also plays Tyrell, the man ordered to kill Richard’s nephews, Elizabeth’s sons. Tyrell lugs the wrapped bodies across the stage; Elizabeth mourns their loss. These contrasts add to the feeling of confused emotionality, suggesting that at a structural level there is no one with clean hands after such civil unrest. Reading’s touches show how a manipulator like Richard might take advantage of such vulnerability to seize power.
Jorge Cousineau’s set aids in this interpretation, displaying the annihilation of a modern war. The use of mixed media, such as junk fused together to stand as stairs, portrays a world once thriving, now mired in destruction with a future uncertain of recovery.
Whenever you leave a great production, especially one by Shakespeare, there are ideas that linger with you long afterwards. In this work, Richard’s conscience gives him a nightmare-wracked sleep on the eve of the battle of Bosworth Field. It occurred to me that despite his attempts to lead a dissembling life founded on inhuman acts, it is his inevitable humanity that brings him down.
Richard is overrun and overwhelmed by the armies of Richmond, but what really drives away his sanity and his composure are the haunting visions of his past transgressions. These are projected onto video screens in Reading’s production, which also uses a camera placed on one of Richard’s crutches.
This visual device highlights the narcissism of the character and served as his reflection to “…descant on mine own deformity”. During Richard’s death scene, the camera is turned on to show his face and the infamy he sought is realized in the immortality of the digital age.
Reading has created a nuanced show at once enjoyable, relatable, disturbing, and thought-provoking. We want to believe there are not Richards in the world today, that he is a device of Shakespeare’s fiction. That is a naïve hope. There are dissemblers and the power hungry who would say and do anything to achieve their aims. We can only hope for a Margaret to curse them into remembering their humanity, or for their own consciences to be the weapon that leads to their demise. And that they have no lap cat—then we’ll all be doomed.
[People’s Light & Theatre Company, Steinbright Stage, 39 Conestoga Road, Malvern, PA] March 16-April 24, 2016; peopleslight.org.