Millman's Shakesblog

A blog about theatre, literature and the arts, with a particular emphasis on the work of William Shakespeare.

We took my son, when he was not yet six years old, to see Hamlet at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. His one-sentence review after the show?

"Hamlet talks too much when nobody is listening."

Hamlet is the most renowned of Shakespeare’s ├╝ber-soliloquizers, but he’s not the first. That title properly belongs to Richard of Gloucester, the white boar - Richard III.

Richard begins in soliloquy, complaining that he no longer has anything to do, now that peace is at hand and his elder brother Edward placed securely on the throne - telling us that now, the winter of “our” discontent (Richard is not king; he’s not using the “royal we”) made “glorious summer,” and excluding himself from the promise of this peace. But why is he telling us this? Who is he talking to?

In Olivier’s film version, Richard is telling us as, effectively, the narrator. By arrogating to himself this role, making himself not merely a participant in but also our guide to the action, Olivier asserts his Richard’s utter dominance over the other actors on the stage; he’s not just the most cunning and ruthless of them all; he’s actually outside the drama entirely. This meta-dramatic move doesn’t have a distancing effect; it draws us in, and draws us to him. But this is, of course, only an illusion, one of Richard’s stratagems, a way of seducing us to his side as he seduces so many others in the play. If he were really outside the drama, he wouldn’t end the show with his corpse impaled and Richmond on the throne. (Or would he?)

In Ian McKellen’s film version, after a prologue that brings us up to speed on the history (defeat and death of Henry VI, Edward and his wife - and her relatives - moving into the royal residence), Richard’s opening soliloquy is split in two. It begins as a formal speech Richard gives at a ball in honor of his brother’s coronation, the opening lines about melting discontent and spreading, welcome peace delivered apparently without irony. And then we follow Richard into the men’s lavatory to hear the rest of the speech, delivered to himself (apparently), about how he has no place in this new peace, and will therefore plot to undermine it to advance himself. And then, McKellen looks at us - into a mirror, actually, but not at himself; the camera is set at an angle, so that he’s looking at us. This implicates us differently. We are not eavesdropping. Richard knows we are watching him. He wants us to know what he’s thinking. Why? Who are we?

I’ve seen a few stage Richards as well, and each has taken a different approach to the crucial opening soliloquy: languidly malevolent, coldly calculating. Kevin Spacey, now playing the role at The Brooklyn Academy of Music, starts off exceptionally hot, flustered even. The seething cauldron of Richard’s resentment and self-loathing is right at the surface, right from the start. It’s a choice that has profound risks. The two big risks are: a foreshortening of the main character arc (if Richard is in touch with his self-loathing from the beginning, then what is the revelation in his eve-of-battle revelation: “I hate myself”) and the weakening of audience implication in Richard’s crimes. The latter requires some explanation. Richard’s opening soliloquy can be powerfully seductive of the audience, if we come to believe that Richard, though a villain, is smarter than and, more to the point, more penetrating in his intelligence than the rest of these characters. Nearly everyone in the play is a ruthless Machiavel out for personal gain; Richard is the only one who is undeluded about this fact, and willing to take it to its logical end. Think of how we identify with the cannibal, Hannibal Lecter, in “The Silence of the Lambs.” But Spacey’s Richard isn’t seducing us. He’s confiding in us. And, confiding, he reveals to us not only that he loathes himself, but that he knows he loathes himself, from the beginning.

But who are we? If we are the audience, then Richard is pleading for our sympathy, saying, in effect, don’t hate me for being a monster - I was born this way. And that, I think, is a bad way to go with this play, one that reduces it. But, strangely enough, if the audience resists offering that sympathy - which I did - then Spacey’s choice becomes more effective. For all that Richard won’t stop talking to us, after all, from the perspective of the drama we’re not there. We are figments of Richard’s imagination. And if we refuse to pity him, then our resistance and his increasingly frenetic efforts to get our attention become an effective enactment of the dialogue taking place inside Richard’s head. We are the unpitying chorus that Richard hears when he talks to himself.

The dividends of this approach are paid almost immediately, in the wooing scene with Lady Anne. This is a scandalously impossible scene - Richard successfully winning the hand of the woman whose husband and father-in-law he slew, while the body of her father-in-law literally bleeds in front of them. As is unfortunately too typical of productions I’ve seen, Annabel Scholey makes an unconvincing Anne. The problem isn’t that she’s shallow - Anne has to be shallow; if she had any depth at all, Richard wouldn’t make any headway. But just as still waters run deep, waves crest higher over the shallows; her shallowness should manifest as violently changeable - but convincing - emotion, and this conviction was lacking. Spacey’s Richard, on the other hand, was magnificent in this scene, and here was where the dividends were first paid for that opening scene. Precisely because we had seen the violence of Richard’s emotions about himself from the first, we see that he is putting these emotions to work in his scene with Anne, transmuting his self-loathing into a passionate feeling: you, Anne, only you can save me from myself. It’s a pitch that, with the right woman, just might work; I believed it, because it had conviction. It wasn’t manipulation; it was method acting - not on Spacey’s part, but on Richard’s. And then, when Anne departs, Spacey’s Richard appears to turn on a dime, eviscerating her for her shallowness and changeability. And then he does something surprising, and turns the knife on himself:

And will she yet debase her eyes on me,
That cropp’d the golden prime of this sweet prince,
And made her widow to a woful bed?
On me, whose all not equals Edward’s moiety?
On me, that halt and am unshapen thus?

In Ian McKellen’s movie, this is the introduction to a momentary reevaluation by Richard of himself. This is the moment when Richard realizes that, on some level, his opening monologue was wrong, he’s not Alberich, he doesn’t have to renounce love, and McKellen dances up the stairs joking about watching his shadow as he passes. Spacey does exactly the opposite. The prospect of being loved, of having actually wooed a woman, forces him to confront himself again; when he says that “she finds, although I cannot,/ Myself to be a marvellous proper man” his voice breaks. Her affection hasn’t altered his opinion of himself, but reminded him of it; indeed, he wants a glass not to marvel that she could love his misshapen but to remind himself that he is misshapen, to strengthen himself in his self-hatred, and turn that hatred outward on the world. It’s a wonderful performance.

The only other moment that rises to similar heights is the late confrontation between Richard and Queen Elizabeth, when he tries to woo her daughter through her, and thereby secure his hold on the throne. Haydn Gwynne seemed to me to be a rather subdued Elizabeth for much of the play, but in this scene it became clear that she was husbanding her strength, and she convinces as the only person willing to stare Richard down. Spacey’s Richard rages at her, but there’s a petulance to the rage - it’s not that he can’t imagine being opposed, it’s that “it cannot be avoided but by this” - that “it” springs from somewhere deeper than the reasons of state that Richard avers; it’s not a threat, but a cry of desperation.

By this point, I was fully won over to Spacey’s portrayal of Richard, and perforce hence to this production, which, in contradistinction to the last Richard III I saw, is overwhelmingly about Richard qua Richard, a psychological portrait rather than a social or theologico-historical one. I say “perforce” because there is precious little else in the production that I can say anything good about. At this point, I’m pretty settled in my opinions of Sam Mendes as a director: I don’t like him. I keep seeing his productions because BAM is my local theatre and because he works with some amazing actors, but I cannot think of a plainly directorial choice - as opposed to one by his actors - that either at the time or in retrospect I found served the play.

A brief catalog of the bizarre directorial choices in this production of Richard III would include:

  • Portraying Margaret not as a regal specter but as a university production’s notion of a hedge witch, intoning her lines for maximum portentiousness, wandering the stage clicking shells together and drawing an “X” on one of the set’s many doors whenever one of Richard’s victims is dispatched.
  • Showing us “adulterous” Hastings in bed with one of his concubines - and then giving said concubine nothing whatever to do in the scene, and having neither Hastings nor Stanley notice her presence.
  • Having Richard plot the death of Anne, now his Queen, loudly while she is sitting next to him, and having her not react in the slightest - with no explanation then or later for her lack of affect. (Kristin Scott Thomas’s drug-addled Anne of McKellen’s movie at least made sense.)
  • Not only staging the pre-battle dream sequence at a banquet table rather than in a tent, but with Henry of Richmond sitting upright and, apparently, awake at one end, rather than sleeping, so that we have no idea what his reality is supposed to be - is he also in Richard’s dream? Does he sleep upright like a horse? I have no idea.

He has two grown women play the princes in the tower, so that we are relatively less-moved by their deaths than usual. He dispatches Richard’s victims by having their executioner wave his hand over their eyes, making their deaths as bloodless and serene as possible. It sometimes felt to me like he was deliberately sabotaging everybody else onstage but Spacey.

And finally, when and where is this play set? The opening curtain read, “Now.” Okay, then. Why is Richard dressed in pseudo-fascist garb? Why does the play open with ancient newsreel footage? Why are the telephones and other office equipment on display at Richard’s HQ as he prepares for battle with Richmond all of World War II-vintage? Apart from Buckingham’s elegant suit and Richard’s remote control, is there anything at all in this production that says, “Now?” If not, what is that word doing there on the curtain?

I don’t demand that plays be set in a recognizable place and time. I recall with great affection a production of Henry IV part 1 in which the Prince and his wingman, Poins, were dressed in modern jeans and leather, his father and the court generally dressed in Edwardian garb, and Falstaff and the rest of the Eastcheap crowd in costumes from Merrie Olde England. Well and good: the signifiers all lined up with something intended to be signified, and the world was, from the perspective of Hal, emotionally consistent. But if you say, “this play is set now” then it should be set now, not in some cracked version of 1939.

The feeling I get most often from Mendes’s productions is simply one of laziness. He chooses the most obvious path to eliciting an emotion from the audience, and doesn’t really seem to care whether it works or not, either on its own terms or in terms of the larger production. He wants to show us that Hastings is a lech, so he gives us a naked woman in his bed. But he doesn’t bother to figure out what her presence is doing to the scene, so he ignores her once he’s done with her. He wants us to know that Richard III is evil, so he dresses him as a fascist - the easiest signifier of evil available. But he also wants us to think Richard is present among us, so he says that his play is set “now” and throws in the occasional trapping of the present to justify that claim. And he doesn’t worry that these two choices undermine each other.

Spacey gives us a compelling and interesting Richard, not the always-in-control Machiavel but the method actor using his own pain and self-loathing to win, of all things, the pity of those he will destroy. It would be fantastic to see a production that embedded this character in a recognizable world with a recognizable politics, that showed us just what the threat is from this character “now.” But Mendes seems more interested in using what we already know to save himself some effort than in telling us what we most urgently need to know to save ourselves from the Richards among us.

Posted by Noah Millman at 12:23pm.

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