Review: ‘Richard III’ at the Folger Shakespeare Library

We saw the second night performance at the Folger Shakespeare Library, a very elaborately (for a small theater like the Folger) staged production, with the stage moved to the center and raised up and the audience on four sides all around (occasionally with actors moving among us). The costumes were gorgeous and little goth. Queen Elizabeth, in particular, wore a blood red, form-fitting dress, leather corset, and a great plunging collar of black and red-black feathers. The widow of Henry VI, Margaret, was dressed like a mad woman from your local Renaissance Faire. The men, Richard excepted, wore items like leather trench coats and velvet jackets – all in black. Richard, though, wore a simple, military looking grey overcoat.

When a character died (was killed, usually by one of Richard’s lackeys), the ‘body’ was taken down, beneath the stage, through a series of trapdoors built into the stage. At the end, the central trap door was made translucent by the light on it and a skeleton was visible: a reference to the relatively recent discovery of the historical Richard’s bones beneath a shopping center parking lot.

Most actors in a production of Richard III are going to seem a little pale in contrast to the oversized presence of Richard himself – exception being Elizabeth. Her height (she was taller than Richard and, indeed, taller than almost everyone else in the play) gave her some physical advantage in matching Richard’s presence. His opening soliloquy breaks the fourth wall (or, in this production’s case, all four fourth walls), something he does several times throughout the first half of the play. The actor played with a strong limp, but was (so my companion assured me) very good looking and radiated an oily, sexual charm. Certainly, one could see Ann falling for him.

Queen Elizabeth did match him well and the greatest sexual tension was not between Richard and Ann nor Richard and Buckingham, but between Richard and Elizabeth. Even when asking for her daughter’s hand in marriage, the real fire was between the two of them. The director even went ahead and made it explicit, with the two of them sharing a brief, but passionate kiss. Had this play been x-rated, you would have expected the two of them to immediately get down to some really dirty hate sex at that point.

Richard did lose me for a bit. Between his initial, risky, but calculated murders and his descent into paranoia, I wasn’t keeping up with where the production was going. But, at some point in the final act, it clicked for me again.

In general, the whole thing was done at a fast pace, well acted, exciting, and innovatively done. And, I finally got to see Richard III performed live!

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