CEDAR CITY — I’ve been reading and watching Shakespeare plays for half of my life and I like to consider myself well versed in the Bard’s work. However, there has been one gaping hole in my knowledge of Shakespeare’s work: the histories. Quite frankly, the histories are not as frequently produced in Utah—or elsewhere in the United States—as are Shakespeare’s tragedies or comedies, which is why I had never seen one on stage. My only previous exposure to the histories was the film version of Henry V, starring Kenneth Branaugh. That’s why I’m pleased that the Utah Shakespeare Festival decided to mount a production of Richard III as part of their 2011 season.
Richard III is the tale of the titlular character’s rise to the throne of England, which he obtains through deceit, treachery, and murder. Richard—who is duke of Gloucester at the play’s opening—is physically, psychologically, and spiritually deformed and willing to stop at nothing in order to obtain his goals. Elijah Alexander embraces the role of Richard and makes the character a man that you love to hate. Alexander is at best in scenes where Richard is putting on a façade of respectability while in reality crossing all bounds of decency, morality, and order as he pursues the throne. In these scenes (such as when he puts on a show of piety for the people of London, or when he pledges to help his brother, the duke of Clarence), Alexander is believable enough that the other characters don’t seem stupid for trusting Richard, yet sly enough that the audience never forgets the true nature of the hunchbacked king.
Although Richard III is very much a tale of political intrigue, director Kathleen F. Conlin has decided to focus on the personalities and relationships that drive the quest for political power. Conlin deftly stages scenes that lead me to honestly question the outcome of the story, even though I had read the play in preparation for my attendance. For example, I knew that Clarence (Christian Barillas) was going to be killed through Richard’s machinations. Yet, when Clarence was being taken to prison, Conlin made choices that emphasized the fraternal bond that Clarence and Richard shared. And even while Richard was exploiting that bond, it was conveyed so powerfully that I was asking myself whether Richard was going to save his brother or murder him. To understand how remarkable this feat is, you must realize that, minutes before, Richard had explained to the audience that he was going to murder Clarence. To introduce ambiguity under such circumstances is a testament of Conlin’s directorial skill. I also admired Conlin’s stage picture that she gradually assembled in the latter half of Act III, which was an effective living backdrop to the scrivener’s scene.
In addition to Alexander’s portrayal as Richard, I was extremely impressed by the portrayal of the main female characters. In the scenes where Elizabeth (Kymberly Mellen), Margaret (Leslie Brott), Lady Anne (Sara Griffin), and Richard’s mother (Carole Healey) were together, the characters lamented their fate, cursed Richard, and mourned for lost husbands, sons, and other loved ones with a spiteful rage that is unequaled in the Shakespearean canon. (The only comparable scenes I can liken it to in the theatre are in The Trojan Women.) I especially admired Healey’s subtle portrayal as a woman who mourned her dead sons and also mourned the fact that she raised the man who killed them. Mellen’s portrayal of Elizabeth was also heart wrenching as she mourned her two murdered sons and also fought to protect her only surviving child—also named Elizabeth—from the physical and political desires of Richard.
I admired the set of Richard III for setting the mood and providing the versatility demanded by Conlin’s vision. As if reflecting the decayed and chaotic state of England as the War of the Roses was drawing to a close, Bill Forrester has created a set that appears rusted and dilapidated. Surmounting the playing area is a chandelier that bears a extremely strong resemblance to a crown, which served as a constant reminder to me of the ultimate goal of all of Richard’s actions. On the other hand, I was slightly confused by the costumes (designed by David Kay Mickelsen). The noble characters all had these odd decorative buttons sewn onto their costumes and similar buttons were used to decorate the crowns that the various characters wore. Although I understood that commoners didn’t have these buttons, I couldn’t figure out if these were merely to distinguish class or to serve some higher dramatic purpose. If Mickelsen had the former purpose in mind, it was unnecessary because the commoners spoke in a lower register and were already wearing plainer clothing. If his goal was to convey some other dramatic idea or theme, it was lost on me.
As for an overall impression of the play, I must admit that it is not my favorite Shakespeare show. Part of what makes Shakespeare’s plays so joyous and pleasurable is the fact that there are distinctive scenes and theatrical tricks that he uses to capture our imagination and attention. That’s why storming the castle in Henry V, the witches’ scenes in Macbeth, the fairies of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Antigonus’s demise in The Winter’s Tale, and the swordfights of Romeo and Juliet are so memorable. These types of scenes are absent from Richard III until the last act. I don’t know if this is just the nature of the beast for Shakespearean histories, but for me it makes Richard III less of a fulfilling experience than what I usually have when watching Shakespeare plays. But I know that many will disagree with me; Richard III was a popular play in the playwright’s lifetime and I might just not have tastes that are suited for the 1590’s.
But to say that I didn’t enjoy the production would be a lie. There’s nothing quite so magical as listening to Shakespeare’s words in a theater similar to the one that those words were originally written for under the stars on a cool southern Utah night. The artists and technicians who have created this production have a product that they can be proud of.
Update: Read UTBA’s interview of Ben Jacoby (Hastings) and Matt Mueller (Richmond). We also invite you to watch UTBA’s video interview of the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s executive director, R. Scott Phillips.