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Review: ‘Richard III

Shakespeare’s King Get Updated

Al Pacino, Ian McKellan, and Jay Whittaker, three interpretations of Shakespe...

Credit: Fox Searchlight, MGM, and Old Globe Theatre

Above: Al Pacino, Ian McKellan, and Jay Whittaker, three interpretations of Shakespeare's Richard III.

A look at stage and screen adaptations of Shakespeare's "Richard III"


"Richard III" is one of Shakespeare's enduring villains. He's been immortalized in a pair of brilliant films and now takes center stage at the Old Globe Theatre.

My introduction to Shakespeare's "Richard III" was as a child when my dad made me stand by the back door of the Old Globe Theater to hear the play's opening lines: "Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York."

We were going to see the play later in the summer but my dad wanted to build a proper sense of excitement and anticipation about a character that he thought was one of Shakespeare's most exuberant villains. From his opening soliloquy, Richard announces his rage, envy, ambitions, humor, and ability to hold us rapt.

The Films

In Richard Loncraine's energetic 1995 adaptation of the play, Ian McKellan delivers those lines to a microphone for a public audience, and then pulls the audience for a more confidential aside to lay out his plan to gain the crown. The film moves the play's historical setting of the late 1400s to 1930s England where Richard becomes a fascist dictator who rises to power by murdering all those who stand in his way. The updated setting turns this fifteenth century melodrama into a modern-day political thriller that resonates chillingly for contemporary audiences.

The following year, Al Pacino brought his documentary, "Looking for Richard," to the screen to explore the text of "Richard III." It was a brilliant deconstruction of the play that brought the character of Richard to vibrant life.

The real Richard III was likely very different from the character created by William Shakespeare in the 1590s. brought to life on stage and in films. Shakespeare delivers this last king from the house of York as an artist in evil who takes delight in his villainous deeds, and who both fascinates and repels.

On Stage

Photo caption:

Photo credit: The Old Globe Theatre

The coronation in "Richard III."

Lindsay Posner tackles the play for the first time in this summer's Globe production: "Evil when presented on stage is charismatic."

Posner's "Richard III" brings the 16th century play into a very contemporary setting: "In terms of the design and the concept we've tried o make it feel very modern and that the battle scenes and very exciting, and I hope that this way it immediately will speak to people in terms of what it's about."

On stage, graffiti covers concrete walls, soldiers carry guns, we hear helicopters flying above, and members of the royal family play to news cameras because Posner wants audiences to make specific connections.

"We've been through various historical moments recently with Gaddafi and Hussein, which follows pretty directly with the psychological and in one sense the storyline of "Richard III." Obviously not in its historical context but in every other way."

This contemporary approach works best in the final battle scenes that look very much like images we've seen on TV news when a mob turns on those in power. There's also a contemporary feel to the pace with a breathless sense of forward momentum. But what proves timeless about the play is the character of Richard who's played by Jay Whittaker.

"I think the joy of the part and of watching it is seeing him woo the audience and charm them and then turn," says Whittaker.

The misshapen Richard -- deformed, unfinish'd, and sent before his time into this world -- takes great delight in manipulating those around him. Whittaker plays him with a leg brace and deformed arm but no hunchback. It's an energetic performance that has Whittaker running around the stage moving his chess pieces about.

At one point Richard woos Lady Anne on her way to bury the husband Richard has just killed. Whittaker says, "That's a pure improv; he's thinking on his feet, okay that didn't work, what's next? He just keeps trying new things until he rattles her so that she can't speak and he throws a ring on her finger and it's all over."

Defying expectations, he wins her hand and gloats over his victory.

RICHARD: I'll be at charges for a looking glass, and entertain a score or two of tailors to study fashions to adorn my body.

"He definitely gets joy from it and gets joy in bewildering the audience as much as he does the characters and making them laugh at moments when it might not be completely appropriate to laugh," says Whittaker, "It always seems like he's pushing people, everyone that he's around, he's pushing them beyond their comfort zone. And everybody's being manipulated, all the time. There's not a single person free from his manipulation."

Not even the audience. But that's what makes the play so dynamic. Richard pulls you into his confidence, rivets you with his schemes, and ultimately repels you with his cruel manipulations. It is one of Shakespeare's earliest plays but it reveals not only his genius but the vigor of a young artist testing his craft. And it's all on display in the Globe's new production.

Related links:

A video of my interview;

Trailer for Laurence Olivier's 1955 adaptation of "Richard III," which also includes scenes from "Henry VI," Shakespeare historical trilogy that preceded it. Feels more like a recitation than a performance but then I have never been a fan of Olivier's Shakespeare. Too much reverence for the text and not enough inspiration.

Trailer for Al Pacino's brilliant dissection of "Richard III" and valiant crusade to make Shakespeare less scary. This should be shown in every English high school across the country.

Opening scene from Ian McKellan's turn as "Richard III" in 1995. One of my all-time favorite Shakespeare films.

Video of Kevin Spacey taking the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey stage for "Richard III." This is a production I would have liked to see. Spacey also appears in Pacino's film.

And if you can find it, there is a recording of "Richard III" with Robert Stephens that is sheer genius, he truly sounds like an artist giving birth to artistic creations.

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