We talk with goblins, owls, and sprites.

I promised a Comedy of Errors review last week, but honestly I really don’t have much to say about the production I saw.  There is not much to say about Comedy of Errors at all, anyway, and so in one way this isn’t surprising.  Needlessly to say it was a good production, it succeeded as a farce, and the actors I met at the talk-back were nice.  It was a repertory company, incidentally, which is the first of those I believe I’ve ever seen.

This repertory business led to some strange decisions, mostly w/r/t blocking, that I’m not sure would carry to all traveling actors or what: but like, the characters would just line up during crowd scenes and step forward to speak.  I can understand if you’re on a different stage every week and can’t manage to keep your blocking consistent why this would happen, and really, in something as flimsy as Comedy you’re not going to break suspension of disbelief by lining up.  It makes me wonder what these guys do when they perform tragedies, though.

Now take a look at some other things!  Hayley Campbell, world-famous twitter enthusiast, has a blog up on fear (the best emotion) and The Woman in Black, a play I saw in London and reviewed here.  I imagine Campbell seeing it at what was probably not a matinee filled with shrieking schoolgirls helped her dig it slightly more than I did, and I admit that though my opinion of the play in that review is slightly critical, in retrospect I’ve grown rather fond of it.  Especially now that a film version with Harry Potter is in danger of destroying everything I find compelling about the original play.

On the front of Lovecraft news, I want to take a moment to point out Cthulhu Chick, who knits Cthulhus, but also has put together a version of HPL’s complete works for your ereader of choice.  And it’s  free!  I should point out that this isn’t technically complete, because it has only his short stories and novels but not his oodles and oodles of terrible poetry.  But that’s me being a pedant.  Something else of note Cthulhu Chick did was this list of Lovecraft’s favorite words, just in case reading them each a good couple dozen times in every story was too subtle for you to figure out how to write your next pastiche.

Young Hamlet

So now that A Serious Game has wrapped I find myself without my weekly guaranteed blog entry.  The upshot is that this semester I am nowhere near as busy as I was last semester, so in theory I should have more time to do write-ups about various things that occur to me.  The problem, then, becomes getting these things to occur to me.

I saw a production of Hamlet last Sunday that was billed as “Young Hamlet” — because it was based off the first quarto (Q1) text of the play, rather than the First Folio text we all are generally familiar with.  The thing about Q1 Hamlet is that it is very, very different from the Folio Hamlet.  To give you an idea: the character of Polonius is, in Q1, called Corambis, and two silly courtiers are Rosencroft and Guilderstone, and so on.  The play is half the length as well, with the production I saw running in at a brisk two hours — this isn’t just because whole speeches aren’t there, but that when they are they are, they’re often shortened or paraphrased versions of the speeches we know.  The most pertinent example here is “To be or not to be — ay, there’s the point!”

Anyway, there are two reasons why this version is called Young Hamlet.  One theory is that this text written by Shakespeare early in his London career — he would have been in his 20s — and it was revised later in life to make the more popular Folio version.  The second reason is that you can figure out Hamlet’s age from some things said by the gravedigger near the end of the play, and if you listen to him in the Folio, Hamlet is about 30 while in Q1 he’s 16-19.  Though I like the Folio text more, I actually prefer a younger Hamlet, because the play just makes more sense.  I mean, the guy is a college student, and even in Shakespeare’s day, if you’re 30 and in college and living at home (and dating a teenaged girl?) there is something wrong with you.

So there are some good things about the Q1 text despite its omissions, and seeing it in performance actually opened up the text for me more.  I don’t know if this speaks to the integrity of Hamlet as a piece of drama or to the obvious care and enthusiasm put forth by the production team, but it was really fun to watch.  There’s a delicious tension in Hamlet for me, at about the point right after he meets with the Ghost.  Here all of the machinery of the play seems to lock into place and I can only watch astounded from the sidelines as the play rockets toward its conclusion, when everything spectacularly goes to shit.

This production — and this text — had that same inertia, it seems.  It was really great to see this similar-but-different take on a story I know very well, and to see some very clever staging decisions the production made.  If there was one big disappointment, it was that the play’s pace in this earlier version was probably too fast — the ending came about very abruptly, and suddenly everyone was dead.  As I said, the feeling towards the end of the play — especially during the fencing scene — when every character’s plans suddenly go off-track is wonderfully complicated and chaotic in the Folio text.  Here everything was comparatively simple and very brief, and the abrupt entrance of Fortinbras (or Fortinbrasse) with little expository dialogue from either him or Horatio made the ending seem like a bit of a slump.

This might be something that could be fixed with staging decisions, since the text doesn’t seem to allow that sense of madcap tension, but at this point for me it’s all speculation.  In short, I’m glad I got the chance to see this production, and I was pleasantly surprised by how well it worked.  There’s been an academic move to reclaim Q1 in the past few years, but this is the first I’ve heard of steps being taken in actual performance, so it should be interesting to see how moves like this change our perception of Hamlet in the future.

This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine

I’ve written an autobiographical poem:

It is okay
to take a shot of whiskey
at 3 am
when you are awakened
by a false fire alarm.

So that’s me, channeling my inner Bukowski.  I’m sorry to say that I don’t have any choice historical literary criticism to dish this week, although I’ve been reading some Stephen Greenblatt and some Frank Kermode and there are bits in there I like.  They may find their way here for my future reference and your momentary enjoyment.

I’ve also got the Patrick Stewart Macbeth in my backlog — it aired on PBS’s Great Performances this week but I couldn’t catch it at the time.  Anyway, it ought to make a good addition to what seems to be Macbeth-a-Thon 2010 — and I have a friend haranguing me to watch Throne of Blood, so that may end up falling under the same banner.  Anyway, if this latest Macbeth raises any points for me, I’ll address them here, as is my wont.

In the meantime, though, let’s take a look at this:

More Macbeth (because why not)

So now I have seen four (4) productions of Macbeth this year.  This latest one was community theater, and about as good as you can expect from free community theater Shakespeare in a park, but it still managed to be more entertaining to watch than the Cheek by Jowl production I saw, even if it lacked the strange insights into the play CbJ (quite boringly) presented.

That’s not to say there wasn’t some thought there.  This production was set, rather vaguely, in Colonial America at about the time of the Revolutionary War.  The witches, for instance, were Native Americans, and there were lots of bayonets, and so on.  The fact that I watched this production on September 11 probably affected by reception of it a bit, too, but regardless of all of that, it put me into the state of mind in which I consider American (US) literature and what’s important about it.

I don’t talk about US lit a lot, mostly because I find it substantially less interesting than other things, but that doesn’t mean I have Opinions, by god, because if I ever manage to make a name for myself I’ll definitely be a part of the US literary tradition more than, well, whatever-the-hell-else.  So anyway, I think that if there is a Shakespeare play that comes close to being an “American” play, it probably really is Macbeth.

This sounds a bit nutty, I know, but Macbeth in my mind has always seemed like a deeply nuanced reworking of Marlowe’s Faust.  And if there’s any European myth that I think has some special claim on America, it’s Faust.  I am very cagey about people (including me) making sweeping statements about “American” literature or a great “American” novel, but if there is a recurring motif in what we seem to consider great US fiction, it’s this notion of a deal with a devil, a fascination with things that have the power to make us great or destroy us, and the choices we have in relationship to these forces.

Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” is the prototype for this in my mind, but I also see it in Moby Dick, in Their Eyes Were Watching God, The Great Gatsby, All the King’s Men, Beloved, and on and on.  My own Gothic predilections are obvious here, but I think there’s something worthwhile in the notion of our national myth, so to speak, being one of great power and ability bought at a terrible (usually bloody) cost.  I’m kind of a pessimist, too, so there’s that.

dark deeds, darkly answered

The Measure for Measure research project has begun and continues apace.  It’s shaping up to be interesting.  In my readings I’ve learned some interesting facts, like that outside of the great tragedies, M4M is Harold Bloom’s favorite Shakespeare play.  What.

I suppose I can afford to link a few things I’ve found that I think are cool or noteworthy.  First, Neil Gaiman has a wonderful piece on Ray Bradbury in the Times Online, one with which I agree wholeheartedly.  I tend to think of myself pretty strongly as a Midwestern writer — so in a more canonical sense my lineage would consist of people like Sinclair Lewis and Sherwood Anderson and their stories of small-town grotesqueries.  And while I’ve read those writers and they’re indeed good, none of them has affected me more than Bradbury — also their literary child, but in addition to petty rural politics, he also wrote about monsters and spaceships.

And with that, my second link.  Jeffrey Anderson, a blogger over at Cinematical, asks if sci-fi as a genre has surpassed horror.  Of particular interest is this bit:

At its best, horror is capable of — and even expert at — taking the temperature of a time and mood in very subtle ways. But, like comedies and erotic films, it will always be an embarrassment, something one enjoys inwardly but does not celebrate outwardly (at awards ceremonies). But there’s also no denying that science fiction has struck a chord with audiences.

Now, this is a film site talking about films and blah blah blah.  You know what I’m going to say: he’s wrong, at least partly.  Yes, horror does its best during times of social and economic duress (the sf/horror boom in the 50s, the satanic horror boom in the 70s leading to the general horror explosion in the 80s, the post 9-11 J-horror boom, and so on).  But to say that a piece of horror fiction is always going to be an embarrassment because it is the product of a certain time — well, absolutely not.

I’ll hedge my bets to begin with.  Let’s look at Dracula: now, this book absolutely takes “the temperature” of Victorian Britain.  Vampires operate entirely by means of metaphors for (repressed) sexual activity.  Quite titillating!  And is it dated?  Yes.  Do people seem to care?  Not particularly — the architecture Stoker established for his vampires is still in use today.  I mean, Twilight, goddamn.

I could also talk about a film that’s both sf and horror — Alien.  It’s a bit harder to make this one relate to its time-period — perhaps you could say it relates to fears of increasing corporate control of society at the end of the 70s.  Anderson seems to assume that a film cannot be tense and foreboding (horror) but also quiet and thoughtful (sf).  Well, Alien is both, and it’s damn good.

Now for straight horror fiction, I could talk about The Shining — the book and the movie.  The book is probably one of the best things King has written, and the film is Kubrick, so you know it’s good.  Unless you want to tie both of them to a particular social event (eg, an increasing number of divorces in the 70s) then they’re both very thoughtful (in their respective ways) and also very tense and frightening.  King’s novel is a meditation on fatherhood, family, abuse, and self-determination; Kubrick’s film is… well, take your pick.

But Anderson does raise a valid point in that horror is simply not as popular as sf (or even fantasy) these days.  Part of this is Peter Jackson’s LotR films being so damn good — fantasy is suddenly respectable, and sf is closer aesthetically to fantasy and therefore easier to digest.  Not to mention sf has a cultural pedigree already in Star Wars and similar things.  Horror’s cultural icons — the old Universal monsters, which aren’t so scary anymore, or Kubrick’s The Shining — are plenty respectable, too, but, as Anderson points out, the ‘modern classics’ of Shaun of the Dead and Let the Right One In haven’t had as great an impact on the culture as either of those.

Well, I guess two reasons as to why, the first being that those films weren’t American.  Before you call me xenophobic, understand: I loved them both.  But that’s because I’m a horror fan and I’m willing to search for good horror.  I’m willing to read the subtitles for LtROI.  The American films Anderson cites (Drag Me to Hell and The House of the Devil) are, mutually, absolutely goddamn terrible and uninteresting.  The second reason is that horror isn’t attuned to zeitgeist at the moment — we’re looking for feel-good escapism, which is what something like Avatar offers, and horror (usually at its best and even sometimes at its worst) is noble for not allowing that.  Horror can have a happy ending, but it exists only to remind us of the dangers and uncertainties of existence, and at the moment, we’d rather fawn over sparkling non-horrific vampires or pretend to be peaceful blue catpeople living on a planet with a ridiculously impractical and unbelievable ecosystem.  I’ll leave it to someone smarter than me to figure out why that is.

In other news: I might have exciting news about something or I might not.  It depends on when I get confirmation of details.  Watch this here space.


The summer lull begins.

I find myself wasting a remarkable amount of time in the hopes that I will feel relaxed once my summer obligations come to bear.  In a little over a week I’ll be back on campus, working on a small research project about Measure for Measure.  It’s common knowledge (more or less) that Shakes lifted the plot from Machiavelli, but I think it’s worth investigating exactly how he’s dealing with Machiavellian politics in the play.  (If I manage to get something useful out of this, I also suspect there are variations on this theme in Coriolanus and The Tempest, and maybe that will also be a profitable area for further research.)  Anyway, that’s boring.

After I finish that up I’ll be a teaching assistant for a two-week course for high school students, during which they’ll hopefully read Hamlet and come to like it.  I’ve taught high school kids before, but that was Anglo-Saxon lit, so they were understandably not very receptive.  Hamlet, at least, can be related to by most teens in ways of differing profundity; the riddles from the Book of Exeter, not so much.

There are a few other things I could talk about here.  For instance, how less than a week after I leave London the country is so lost without me that they just cocked things up royally.  But again, that’s boring.

Instead I’ll leave off with a delightful glimpse into the past, when a little girl named Mary O’Connor taught a chicken to walk backwards.  She also became one of the greatest American writers of the past century and probably my single favorite writer of all time (which is obviously saying something), but that all happened much later.

Well let’s talk about something else

Now that I’ve sufficiently splattered by unseemly emotions all over the internet, let’s talk about some other things.

I mentioned in the Dunsinane review that I was going to go see the RSC’s latest production of Lear, and rest assured I did, and it was pretty good.  Nevertheless, I don’t think I have much to say about it, since it was the kind of thing that raised a lot of interesting points but didn’t follow through on them.  This is distinct from the Twelfth Night I saw, which simply didn’t bother to raise points until the end; rather, this Lear had a lot of interesting ideas that never coalesced into a main thrust or argument, and so in the end it was a very good but somewhat jumbled.  I don’t think it needs more in the way of a review other than me saying that, if you had the opportunity, it would not be a waste of your time to see it.

I might be seeing some more plays before I leave.  Well, scratch might — I’ll at least be seeing Cheek by Jowl’s Macbeth at the Barbican in a few weeks, and at the end of April I hope to catch another Macbeth at the Globe.  With the way these things work out it really must seem like Macbeth is my favorite play (it’s actually probably #2) and I go out of my way to bring it up.  I swear to God I don’t, this just happens to me.  I can’t go anywhere without Macbeth playing into the situation in some capacity — it’s actually started to freak me out a little.  By the end of my time in London, I will have seen three productions of the damn thing.  This isn’t helped by the very well known fact that the play is cursed.

At any rate, I’ve already mentioned that the first production I saw was pretty terrible.  Cheek by Jowl is not known for being terrible, of course, and from what I’ve seen of their production it could end up being pretty damn cool; the Globe can be hit-or-miss, depending on what they’ve decided to do.  After this is all wrapped up I may try to write some sort of short essay on the three Macbeths and make some piquant observation about the tendencies of modern productions or something like that, so we’ll see.

On non-Shakespearean fronts, I’m going to try to hit up a production of Jonson’s The Alchemist later this month.  This should be good because Jonson, though Shakespeare’s contemporary, sometimes strikes me as a more modern in his ways of thinking and writing than Shakespeare usually does.  I’m not saying that Shakespeare is antiquated, of course, but I mean there is definitely a “Shakespearean” tone he strikes.  Jonson, for his part, has a bunch of wacky characters who are generally bad people having hilarious times at each other’s expense.  It’ll also be good to actually see The Alchemist since 1) it’s been several years since I read the play, and 2) for various reasons, chiefly the lack of stage directions, the play is almost impossible to follow on the page.

Also, because I can’t say the things I said last post and not really follow up on them, here’s a tiny update: work is marginally better and something weird happened.  More on that if anything comes of it.

Dunsinane @ Hampstead Theatre

And now for something completely different.

Unlike the other plays I’ve talked about in this space, Dunsinane is a modern play that premiered near the beginning of February.  However, because I am completely monomaniacal in my interests, there is of course a Shakespeare connection: it’s billed as a sequel to Macbeth.  Which it is, sort of.

Obviously doing something like this has the potential to blow chunks of epic proportions, but I was pleasantly surprised by Dunsinane.  In fact it is… Not Bad At All.  Of the plays I’ve seen here, it’s number two — right behind that Measure for Measure production I didn’t really talk much about.  But anyway, I’m writing about Dunsinane now.  Let’s do this.

It should be noted that David Greig, a playwright of no little renown, makes a smart decision and does not choose to make Dunsinane a straight sequel to Shakespeare’s Macbeth; rather, he places his play more distinctly within historical reality.  Macbeth (who is never referred to by name and never appears on stage) is a well-regarded king who has ruled for fifteen years after seizing the throne from the weak and tyrannical Duncan; Duncan’s son, Malcolm, has meanwhile convinced the English that Macbeth rules against the wishes of the people of Scotland, and so a contingent of English soldiers led by Siward and Macduff (one of the handful of Scottish nobles to turn against Macbeth) storm the castle of Dunsinane and implement a bit of regime change.

That should sound kind of familiar, and it’s intentional.  The play mirrors the Iraq situation, with mixed results.  Much better is the way it blurs the line between actual history, Shakespeare’s play (Birnam Wood does indeed come to Dunsinane — it’s the opening scene), and Greig’s own imagination.  This mixture also allows Greig to bring Shakespeare’s most famous character, Lady Macbeth, back under her real name — Gruach.  She died for Shakespeare, she lived historically; she also had a son by her previous marriage, another detail preserved and one that invalidates Malcolm’s claim to the throne.

Malcolm, for his part, turns out to be a corrupt jackass who simply wanted the privileges of being king and not the responsibilities.  He’s also ruthless; he wants Gruach (who he’s captured) and her son (who has gone into hiding) killed to consolidate his power.  The Englishman Siward, the protagonist of the play, only wants wants stability and peace — as he calls it, justice — in the country he has invaded, and he’s willing to commit himself and the English forces indefinitely to enforcing a stable regime in Scotland.

I think it’s a great setup.  There are, in fact, a lot of really great things about this play.  It’s RSC-sponsored, so production values and set design are no problem; the actors are all generally strong, especially Gruach, who proves to be just as overwhelming a presence as a wronged mother and monarch as she does when she’s a batshit crazy regicide.  The structure of the play, though it’s four acts based on seasons, still manages to have some neat nods to Shakespeare, such as the mixture of Siward’s higher tragedy with the banter of his soldiers, vulgar young boys who discuss sex and homesickness before encountering with Heavy Stuff like death and warfare.

There’s actually a heavy dose of comedy; the opening scene of the march on Dunsinane is played mostly for laughs, underscoring how ridiculous it is to have soldiers pretending to be trees.  This is intercut with more serious scenes, as you may expect, but even Siward and Gruach have highly comedic lines.  Malcolm, for his part, is the worst; he’s played as a spineless, pseudo-Tony Blair parody, a leader who equivocates and lies but has no solid ideas for what he plans to do.  The humor written for his character is so brash and forthright, so damn modern, that it actually broke my suspension of disbelief, especially when thrown up against large, serious, questions of justice, warfare, and colonialism.

That is the play’s biggest fault: it doesn’t know what the hell it is, or wants to be.  It’s either a silly allegoric satire of the Iraq War in period dress, or it’s a serious treatment of the motivations for and effects of doing what you think is the right thing, and how far some people are willing to go for what they recognize as justice.  It’s either watching ill-equipped, unprepared young men die horribly while making sex and shit jokes, or it’s watching a committed idealist be slowly destroyed by the corrupt world around him.

All in all, the play actually has very little to do with Shakespeare’s Macbeth other than setting and a few revisionist takes on shared characters.  Thematically it’s in a different ballpark entirely.  I’ve talked before during the Psycho series about the concept (borrowed from a professor) of the “rewrite” — and in one sense Dunsinane is an attempt to rewrite Macbeth.  But that’s only skin-deep; Greig wants to call Shakespeare out on his historical inaccuracies, his limited understanding of Scottish culture, and rectify these mistakes.  But on a deeper, more profound level, Greig isn’t working with Macbeth at all.

This is clear enough in the last scene: Siward, with only a single foolish young soldier to keep him company, confronts Gruach in the midst of a bitter snowstorm.  We’ve been watching this man break down for the past two hours, we’ve seen his hopes shattered, we’ve seen him betrayed, and now we see him, hunched, obsessed, perhaps driven mad, crying out for revenge and justice in the midst of a storm.

No, Dunsinane isn’t Macbeth; it’s King Lear.

Which is interesting in and of itself, since by the time this entry is posted (remember, I’m writing a week in advance and autoupdating) I in theory will have seen the RSC’s new production of Lear running in Stratford-Upon-Avon.  And later this month, I hope to see the new RSC-sponsored play and counterpart to Dunsinane, The Gods Weep — which, when you read the plot synopsis, also happens to very obviously be a Lear rewrite.

Will something come of this?  Only time will tell!*

*Also assuming I haven’t met with some horrible accident during my week of being homeless.

Twelfth Night @ The Duke of York’s Theatre

This was a Royal Shakespeare Company production, and not just any RSC production, but an RSC production directed by Gregory Doran.  Doran is most recently famous for taking a huge risk in 2008 and casting Doctor Who‘s David Tennant in Hamlet, a move that apparently paid off in spades.  I obviously wasn’t here to see it, and I haven’t yet gotten my hands on a copy of the DVD, but I’ve heard good things (also, Patrick Stewart as Claudius? Daaaaamn).  Anyway, in addition to his Hamlet cred, in 2000-ish Doran put on a Macbeth that I think, despite its few faults, might be the closest thing to definitive we’ve got.  So I have a lot of respect for (and expectations of) Gregory Doran.

It really saddens me, then, to say that his Twelfth Night is not that good.

Which isn’t to say it is bad, really.  The word my professor used, and one that I think is most appropriate, is “patchy.”  The play stopped and started, came and went, and ended up feeling generally uneven.  Doran tried his hand at casting a TV actor in the meatiest role, this time famous (over here, anyway) grumpy old man Richard Wilson as the puritanical steward Malvolio.  Malvolio, as it happens, is not even a main role, but 12N is one of those plays where the subplot is more famous than the actual plot; Malvolio is the character people care about, and putting Wilson in the role was meant to draw more scrutiny, speculation, and (most importantly) audience members than any other aspect of the production.

Needless to say this is what most of the reviews focus on; in earlier stagings, apparently, Wilson wasn’t impressive.  This was his first turn on Shakespeare, but by the time I saw the play (it was very near the end of its run) I thought he was adequate.  A little stiff and hollow, perhaps, but that is probably the best way to describe the whole production.  During the first two acts, all I could say about it was that it was definitely Twelfth Night, with various actors playing various characters I know are in the play, all with the expected lavish RSC set design and high production values.  Aside from that, it was lifeless.

Things picked up in acts 3-5, following the interval, where it seemed like the entire cast had ducked into their dressing rooms and snorted cocaine before coming back on.  The actors weren’t any better, exactly — Viola/Cesario, Orsino, Olivia, and nearly everyone else was still pretty bland (Sebastian, by the bye, was bad and stayed bad) — but the smaller characters like Toby, Andrew, and Fabian seemed to really get into what they were doing, and everyone seemed more lively and happier to be on stage.

The two real bright spots of the production were Fabian, who is really a very small part but the actor had a good control of the character, and Feste, who was the only major character who seemed consistently on.  They really emphasized his songs (we’re talking entire dance numbers), which was odd, considering the actor didn’t seem to be a very strong singer to begin with.  But I give him points for getting out in front of people and singing, anyway, and I give him the benefit of a doubt since it’s cold season and he might have been losing his voice.

But aside from those two performances, the play was very flat.  “Oh look,” the actors seemed to be saying, “we are putting on a Shakespeare play.  What a thing to do!”  (The Olivia was especially guilty of this — also, they made her character a slut, which has its fun moments but overall is unengaging, especially when the player is Very Obviously Acting, as this one was.)

The sole moment of real almost-brilliance, in my opinion, was the ending, where Feste sings his famous bit about the rain.  Like the film version I just linked, it was played as a sort of montage of Feste singing while various scenes occurred on stage around him.  The key difference was that the song was much slower and the scenes were not of journeys ending in lovers meeting, but snapshots of all the characters who ended up on the losing side of things — Antonio the gay sailor, robbed of his bland, uninteresting boycrush Sebastian by an insane cougar, and Andrew Aguecheek, robbed of his insane cougar by a bland, uninteresting boy, and (this was kind of neat) Toby and Maria, who pantomimed a very bitter and angry domestic dispute.  Naturally this ended with Malvolio, the biggest loser in the play, and as Feste finished his song the two of them stood side by side on the stage, glaring at one another, the Fool and the Puritan — and the lights fell.

I actually got chills from that, man.  It suggests, I believe, a very powerful reading of 12N that could make a very, very fine production.

It’s too bad that Gregory Doran didn’t, you know, use it.

Richard III @ Riverside Studios

This was not a very good production.

The thing about R3 is that it works best when the title character is played as an over-the-top hilarious cartoon — a sort of evil ain’t-I-a-stinker Bugs Bunny.  What this means is that you need a Richard who is crazy, zany, hilarious, and carries the production on his hunched back.  Unfortunately, the folks at Riverside Studios decided to attempt deep emotional resonance, and while they actually achieved this to some degree — the Elizabeth was absolutely amazing, especially when Richard proposes marrying her daughter and she rips him to pieces, and the elderly Margaret (played by a man!) was quite convincing as a drunken, curse-spitting old woman fallen on hard times.  The guy playing Richard was actually good, spinning it as a kind of Crispin Glover thing.

Despite this, the play was just boring.  It was far too somber and therefore very grueling to sit through — the last third was nicely abridged, especially the procession of ghosts, but the first two-thirds were plodding.  Richard needs to be energetic and awesome in a love-to-hate-him way; the audience needs to know he’s unquestionably evil, yet at the same time really want to see him fuck people’s shit up.  It simply works better when it’s a crazy Marlovian spectacle.  My evidence: Ian McKellan’s Nazi-flavored 1995 adaptation, which plays hell with the source text (they all do, as R3 is ungodly long and sloppy) but it’s loads of fun and pretty damn stylish.

A more positive note about the Riverside production: Catesby was also very good.   The staging was a sort of modern multinational corporation boardroom setting and they chose to make Catesby a smartly dressed young female secretary with a clipboard and a constant uncertainty about what the hell was going on around her, and who slowly realized she was both in over her head and pretty much stuck in the plot for the long haul.  This worked.

On the other hand, both sides of the stage had this industrial scaffolding that, at various points in the play and for no specific reason, Richard would climb around on despite apparently suffering from palsy.  I think the idea was to make him sleek and dangerous, and the acrobaticsmaybe would recall the “bottled spider” remark Margaret makes about him.  A neat idea, kind of awkward in execution.  SPEAKING OF WHICH: the Battle of Bosworth Field was a dance party.  I am not kidding.  Both sides glowered at each other from across the stage, dancing slightly while techno music played and strobe lights went off.  Occasionally they staggered as if they’d been hit.  It was like watching a Final Fantasy battle screen, which again was pretty neat, but within the context of the play and production completely crack rock.

And that’s all I have to say on Richard III’s Jungle Gym and Rave from Hell.  On Wednesday keep an eye out for my thoughts on the RSC’s recent production of Twelfth Night. Here’s a preview: it’s also not very good!