by Carol Rocamora
If you’re desperate for political theatre to illuminate our turbulent times, you never have to look further than Shakespeare.
Watching the Druid Company’s mesmerizing, lacerating production of Richard III, we’re acutely reminded of tyrants on the world stage today who rule their respective countries with an iron grip. But what makes the Druid’s Richard even more dangerous is that he is so damned entertaining!
As played by the charismatic Irish actor Aaron Monaghan, this Richard is a shameless show-off, equally seductive as he is repulsive. From the moment he takes the stage to herald “the winter of our discontent,” he charms us, taking us into his confidence, explaining exactly how he’s going to slaughter his way to the English crown – the dreaded prize that this “son of York” plans to wrest from his own brother King Edward (c. 1482).
While Hamlet’s soliloquies are filled with obsessive self-doubt, Richard’s are basically much more exciting! He’s a self-proclaimed villain, and makes no apologies for it, dazzling us with his outrageous, unabashed daring. Why not take what he wants from life, he says, as a justification for his grotesque physical deformities? Doesn’t that seminal injustice give him permission? More than any Richard I’ve ever seen, his dreadful logic makes perverse sense. Rather than pity him, we admire how he manipulates his twisted body around the stage (Monaghan uses two ski poles as crutches), while tripping everyone who comes across his path as he careens toward the crown.
So we in the audience become his willing confidants, eagerly awaiting each soliloquy in which he reveals the next steps of his intricate plot. Along his bloody journey, he imprisons and ultimately murders his other brother Clarence, and orders the death of his young nephews (after their father Edward dies) as well as his closest allies, Buckingham and Hastings.
As for his relationships with women, Richard is a master manipulator. He’s clever, conniving, unpredictable, and ultimately irresistible. The two seduction scenes are astonishing in their audacity. Early in the first act, eager to make a politically advantageous alliance, he convinces Anne (whose husband and father-in-law he has murdered) to be his wife, seducing her with his professions of love. (“I won’t keep her long,” he whispers to us after, incredibly, she agrees). Later on in the play he actually persuades Elizabeth, his widowed sister-in-law and mother of the nephews he’s slaughtered, to allow him to marry her daughter, while we in the audience marvel at his ingenuity. Astonishing! We actually admire him.
Monaghan’s overpowering performance could almost be enjoyed as a one-man show, featuring a spellbinding study of a historical psychopath. Nonetheless, director Garry Hynes surrounds Monaghan with a superb ensemble to tell Shakespeare’s complete story, dressed in O’Connor’s impressive period costumes. As old Queen Margaret, Richard’s opponent unto death, Marie Mullen is a formidable presence, delivering a series of terrifying curses on the seemingly unstoppable tyrant – curses that ultimate come to pass. Siobhán Cullen (Lady Anne) and Jane Brennan (Queen Elizabeth) have the impossible tasks of yielding to the tyrant’s seduction – assignments they fulfill while somehow keeping their dignity. A trio of the play’s female characters, reiterating their shared curse toward the end of the play, is exceptionally powerful – a testimony to the feminist strain in Hynes direction.
There’s a penchant for black comedy in Hynes’s Richard III as well (she’s known for her direction of Martin McDonagh’s dark plays). One wicked touch is performed by Garrett Lombard as the stone-faced Tyrrel, Richard’s hit-man, who executes Richard’s victims with a staple-gun attached to a long power cord that hangs from the ceiling. Another is the gaping grave placed downstage on Francis O’Connor’s handsome silver-and-steel set, into which Richard’s victims, one after one, are rolled, shoved, and dumped. It’s a ritual that actually provokes laughter as it is repeated.
Throughout these three spellbinding hours of Hynes’s production, a clear plexiglass box hangs overhead. In it sits a white skull, atop which – following Edward’s death – sits a crown. To get it, bloody Richard orders a henchman to hoist him up so he can grab the crown from its deathly perch.
It’s a fearsome image for our fearsome times.
Photos: Richard Termine
Druid Shakespeare: Richard III, directed by Garry Hynes, produced by Druid, at Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival, now through November 23.
Run Time: 3 hrs. (including intermission)