Wednesday, July 6, 2011


Reviewed by James Karas

The Stratford Shakespeare Festival has racked up another memorable and historic production of Richard III. Memorable because it is an excellent production in every respect of a difficult play. Historic because the title role is played by a woman (Seana McKenna) and the production is heir to earlier significant stagings of the play.

After all Richard III was the first play to be produced at Stratford in 1953 with Alec Guinness in the title role directed by Tyrone Guthrie. In 1967 Alan Bates took on the role of the evil king and was followed by Brian Bedford and Colm Feore in subsequent productions. That is a formidable array of talent to follow for any actor. In this case there is the added element of increased curiosity and scrutiny because the star is a female.

The result is an outstanding production that qualifies for the monikers of memorable and historic.

Shakespeare’s Richard III is an evil man, a manipulator, a murderer who is so depraved and power hungry that he has his brother and his nephews (the heirs to the throne) killed without any compunctions. That type of evil person is not unusual in drama. Richard is also physically misshapen with a hunched back and a lame arm which complements his moral deformity.

What takes Richard out of the pantheon of ordinary villains is his sheer theatricality. He enjoys, indeed relishes, his villainy and even finds humour in it.

This production, directed by Miles Potter, captures all those characteristics of the villain and delivers the play without relying on noise, battle scenes or over-the-top exits and entrances.

The bulk of the credit, of course, goes to Seana McKenna. With stringy hair and a bald pate, she hops around the stage and delivers her lines with impeccable poetic sense and assurance. She and the rest of the cast speak in a measured speed allowing the audience to hear and absorb every line. The underplaying of the sword fights adds to the perception that words are the most important part of the play.

McKenna’s Richard is a delight to watch and hear. Her female voice appears like an added deformity on the part of the character. He has a high-pitched voice, another burden that he has to bear and that makes him stand apart from the rest of society. A performance to relish.

Richard III has a page full of lords, knights and clerics, and you need a family tree and a guidebook to know who is who. But there are three women who stand out. In order of my prejudice, the most memorable is Queen Margaret, the widow of the deposed and dead King Henry VI. She is angry and bitter, one might say, and uses invective against her enemies like a swashbuckler uses a sword. She is fast, accurate, deadly and simply marvellous. I speak both of the character as conceived and of the performance as delivered by Martha Henry.

Bethany Jillard as Lady Ann is another woman to watch. She has cause for anger and bitterness. Her husband has been killed by Richard and he stops the funeral procession to woo and win Lady Ann. Jillard’s Lady Ann is a wounded but vulnerable woman done superbly.

Yanna McIntosh as Queen Elizabeth and Roberta Maxwell as the Duchess of York deserve special mention for the performances. The cast in general did very well.

The plot of Richard III gets pretty murky around the middle and the temptation for a director is to overdo the entrances and exits and emphasize the sword fights. To his great credit, Potter eschews that sort of commotion. The costumes and the regalia are underdone leaving us with the essence of the play whatever its shortcomings.

You should leave the theatre with memories of a woman playing Richard in a production bereft of pomp and circumstance but very well acted and making this Richard III an outstanding production.

Richard III by William Shakespeare opened on June 2 and will run until September 25, 2011 at the Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford, Ontario.

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