at Shakespeare’s Globe, Saturday 28th July 2012
Many actors explain that for every character they play, no matter how evil, they have to be sympathetic in order to craft a truthful performance. In Richard III at the Globe, Mark Rylance goes a step further, ensuring audiences fall deeply in love with the anti-hero. We don’t love to hate him, but love to love this gentle, misunderstood and unstable Richard. But though Rylance’s performance and the support from those around him are strong, under Tim Carroll’s direction the two never quite work together.
From the moment he limps onto stage, Rylance is utterly magnetic. He holds the attention of the audience with a simple look or a well-timed sniff. At one point, a mobile phone beeps and he darts his head in the direction of the sound like a meerkat looking out over the desert. His laugh bellows around the auditorium, and it’s not until he’s bumped off a few enemies that we realise he’s the bad guy. Rylance suggests a slight autism in this Richard; his remarkable cunning is balanced by relatively weak social skills, meaning that along with his deformity he is truly an underdog. Like true Brits, we support him wholeheartedly, and indeed are implicit in his rise to power, taking the part of the civilians in the monk scene. Then again, we also support his downfall, as Richmond summons our cheers; just like our everyday selves, we can be played by politicians’ hyperbole, and change our mind without hesitation.
Rylance’s final scenes are truly heartbreaking, as the suggestion that he never really knew what he was doing becomes apparent. He sees the ghosts of his victims during his battle with Richmond (after seeing them looking like white turds in his dreams) and it suddenly dawns on him that he’s a murderer. His struggle is a constant one between latent violence and pure gentleness, and its the meeting of these which cause his demise.
Contrary to my words in my Henry V review, the Globe here finds strong support for Rylance. Liam Brennan’s grounded and kingly Clarence shows what England missed out on, and Paul Chahidi’s somewhat effeminate Hastings shows the corruption doesn’t just lie with Richard. Roger Lloyd pack is somewhat prone to declamation as Buckingham, but his comic timing forgives this, and though it initially seems James Garnon’s Duchess of York is going to be a caricature, there is surprising depth to this portrayal which goes beyond the visual joke of her gliding across the stage. Johnny Flynn’s Lady Anne doesn’t quite manage to capture the hurt the new queen suffers, though perhaps his performance is simply made to look weak against Samuel Barnett’s fine turn as Queen Elizabeth, demonstrating strong, principled opposition to Richard’s actions.
But though Carroll discovers some intriguing performances, it’s difficult to see why this group of people weren’t able to stop this gentle Richard. Their weaknesses are barely tangible; the only way this Richard would be able to come to power would be if he was surrounded by bumbling sycophants, but in this case the court is (mostly) fairly astute.
I also suspect that Jenny Tirimani’s Elizabethan costume and design, though gorgeous, doesn’t help matters. A Richard as different as Rylance’s needs an alternative context in which to work due to its removal from Shakespeare’s initial pantomimic portrait. The reason behind the decision to have an all-male cast in this instance also eludes me, for it seems to neither to add nor take away anything. These performances would not be much different in a black-box studio with a mixed cast (at least then we’d be rid of the Globe’s determination to create lazy comedy). Some would argue that ‘original-practices’ is a form of avant-gardism, which is ludicrous, seeing as to do so is to reject the last four hundred years of development in theatre. Still, that argument is for another day.
Watching Richard III on the same day as Henry V brings an interesting contrast to light. At the climax of each tetralogy of the Histories, Shakespeare shows two major uses of theatre; as reflection on issues within society (Richard III) and as a vehicle for hope (Henry V). And though it’s not quite as simple as that, it strikes me that perhaps this is the reason why neither production really works. There are elements of exposing corruption and hope respectively, but neither goes the whole hog. Nonetheless, they are representative of a general rise in the Histories’ popularity over the past few years (since the RSC’s cycle) as these plays get the recognition they deserve and we attempt to understand better our own links with history and where that may lead us in the future.