by Companhia Bufomecânica, based on Shakespeare’s Richard III
at the Courtyard Theatre, Tuesday 8th May 2012
*The performance reviewed was the last preview*
In 1863, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote of his concern that the work of artists would become “surcharged with immense and incoherent imagery, with exaggerated descriptions and strange creations”, making us “regret” reality. The Brazilian Companhia Bufomecânica’s Two Roses for Richard III, presented in Portuguese as part of the World Shakespeare Festival, is guilty of exactly these vices, and is such a hotch-potch of ideas and images (many of which are fantastic), presented with little coherence, that it is extremely difficult to follow, lacks drama and leaves us craving for a little sanity.
According to the programme notes, this production has taken inspiration from all eight of Shakespeare’s histories in order to present a new, contemporary version of Richard III. Alas, this barely comes through in the final production, which is basically a translated and conservatively edited production of the last History with a smattering of references to the prequels and a few postmodern asides to the audience (“I don’t know how to die on stage. I’m just an actor!”).
The show opens with an orgiastic movement number, with actors discarding their modern clothes in favour of generic-Elizabethan apparel. Richard, semi-naked, recounts his favourite speech, but before we know it three different actors are playing the character in the Lady Anne scene (supposedly to demonstrate his multi-faceted personality). Rowan Atkinson look-a-like Savio Moll takes most of Richard’s lines for the rest of the play, playing him as petulant and short-tempered, before Carol Machado plays the falling king in the final scenes opposite Julia Lund’s stoic Richmond. These shifts work academically, but on stage without signposts like common costumes or accessories it becomes difficult to follow who’s who and the nuanced differences between the versions.
Total theatre is attempted by directors Cláudio Baltar and Fabio Ferreira, incoporating projection, music, dance and acrobatics into the performance, but it is not fully achieved due to the overwhelming sense that the pieces of the jigsaw do not fit together. Renato and Rico Vilarouca’s video images look stunning, but have little in common with the subject matter of the scene, and Paulo Mantuano’s movement, though clever, too often lasts longer than is welcome (when the women are mourning, the cast just moves around the stage slowly for five minutes). Fernando Mello da Costa and Rostand Albuqueque’s set provides a sweeping blue platform for these aspects to play on, falling down from the back before jutting out and down towards the audience like a dropped ribbon.
The defining moments of this production are the carnivalesque circus acts, choreographed by Renato Linhares, which are used to represent murders or the supernatural. Clarence’s murderers climb onto a floating ladder to murder their charge and the two princes are slaughtered within what look like gigantic finger-traps, whilst the ghosts berate Richard and champion Richmond from high above the audience. Some stunning images are created, and along with Fabiano Krieger and Lucas Marcier’s fantastic soundtrack, which covers everything from basic drumming to contemporary electronica, we are treated to some moments of unadulterated theatricality.
Unfortunately, however, these stand-out scenes are negated by the saturation of ideas presented, which makes it difficult to know where to look or what to listen to (a fact not helped by the fact we find ourselves reading the English subtitles throughout). The visual effects do not add anything to the storyline and actually detract from the drama of Shakespeare’s text even if they do create memorable snapshots. As an academic exercise, Two Roses for Richard III throws up some interesting points about the play, its context and theatre in general, but the company would do well to undergo a little reflection to pare the production back in order to serve itself better as a piece of theatre. As it stands, it seems de Tocqueville was right, and over much of this long three-and-a-quarter hours we long to return to a concrete reality.