Jeremy Hutton, the new Artistic Director of Hart House Theatre, has a very distinct, cinematic style when directing Shakespeare which I think audiences often are either entirely riveted by, or strongly detest. That being said, I thought that Hutton’s 2008 production of King Lear was quite magnificent, but, unfortunately, the production of Richard III playing until October 2nd 2010, lacks the clarity and scope of vision that made his Lear so formidable.
Richard III is thought to have been written in 1591, which makes it one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays and, although it is often officially considered to be a History Play, it can be argued that it is the first of the playwright’s canon that melds the line between History and Tragedy. In this way, it is not the narrative, the chronicling of the Machiavellian rise to power of Richard, Duke of Glouster, in England in 1483, which gives the play its dramatic intensity, but the way that Shakespeare has chosen to depict these characters and the intricately woven subtext, irony and wit that pulsates just below the surface.
Hutton’s production coasts along the surface of this story, as like a melodrama, where Richard III is always the moustache twirling villain. Hutton’s lighting and soundscape choices, and his use of dramatic vignettes make Shakespeare’s plot clearer, and perhaps easier to follow, but the way that he represents the characters in these scenes is simplistic and didactic, which drains much of the subtly from the text.
Andre Sills plays Richard III as a ticking time bomb, either angrily storming around the stage, ominously threatening the audience with further violence or masking his intentions with a sleaziness that is just as unlikeable. The brilliance of the way that Shakespeare has constructed this character is that he is supposed to be a sort of antihero. He is, especially in the beginning, the audience’s protagonist, as he is the only character who speaks to them directly and he is designed to, at least initially, lure the audience into conspiring with him and sympathizing with him, so that in the end, it is not only his mother and his friends who have turned against him, but also the entire theatre house. In this production, Richard III is always unlikeable, not just for the audience, but for all the characters, which means that it does not make sense how Sills’ Richard is able to deceive his compatriots, his brothers, his nephews and the entire kingdom and trick them into believing that he is trustworthy and virtuous.
What makes this play so universally timeless is the way that Shakespeare has captured the way that one murderous, treacherous tyrant is able to charm, manipulate, bribe and deceive an entire country with an affable facade and feigned modesty so cunning and so perfectly seductive that he, even as a hunchback with a disfigured hand, can not only win over the whole country, but even sweep the wife of a man he murdered off her feet. It is in Richard’s power to corrupt and mislead, in the discrepancy between his public mask and his private vileness that this play draws its relevance, and its connection to contemporary politics. In Hutton’s production this element has been nearly entirely lost, except during one fantastic scene where Richard pretends to reject the crown until a crowd of his supporters appear to have to beg and coerce him to become King, which was nicely portrayed by Sills and Neil Silcox as Buckingham.
The cast, in general, have good mastery of their lines, although at times the depth of their meaning is not adequately drawn out and scenes sometimes dissolve into empty yelling. Nathan Wilson and Ian Hanson, who play the young Princes, Edward and York, have found a nice balance between being endearing and being brave and show great fortitude in their performances.
There is certainly nothing painful about this production, although it is long (three hours) and at times feels it, mostly one just wishes that Richard would, indeed, clothe his naked villainy so that he could seem a saint when most he plays the devil.
Richard III plays at Hart House Theatre (7 Hart House Circle) until October 2nd, 2010. For tickets or for more information please call 416. 978.8849 or go online to http://www.harthousetheatre.ca/.