nytheatre.com review by Matthew Trumbull
November 9, 2007
The hump is not enormous. Not Quasimodo enormous, at any rate. Classic Stage Company's current production of Richard III features Michael Cumpsty with a talon-like grip on the title role. Dressed in unadorned, militaristic black (a sort of Kim Jong Il-chic), Cumpsty's Richard does have a limp, but he scuttles across the stage with the revolting quickness of a cockroach. His torso stays fairly upright, though, and an erosive intelligence carves his facial crags into an exact replica of innocence, when required. He's hardly freakish to the gaze. Was this a Richard with an entirely imaginary hang-up? No. The hump shows up much more prominently in the second act, under his royal motorcycle jacket. That's correct. Richard, by now an enthroned murderer, brings a sleek, leather look to the court's fashion, and the new, snug fit is not forgiving to even the mildest of deformities. The emphasized contours of the hump now register as a haughty symbol of ultimate power—the refusal to hide what the world now trembles to scorn. Cumpsty's Richard has the sickness of ambition in its most destructive strain—it is not enough for him to reach his throne through whatever means lack of conscience provides. He will never rest until his world is free of all threats imagined in the night. Such mental torment is unsoothed by the cool touch of a crown.
Richard III rings an alarm of relevance to current times, with its political skullduggery, manipulation of the public, and fractious infighting. It is the culminating work of Shakespeare's eight-play "War of the Roses" history cycle, an epic soap opera of power shifts between the royal houses of York and Lancaster, symbolized by a white rose and a red, respectively. The family allegiances and grievances are notoriously difficult to keep track of for the newcomer to this work. Costume designer Oana Botez-Ban does a good job at color-coordinating factions in vibrant hues to make this easier. The Yorks in blue are in power at the top of the play, after a long war with the Lancasters ended with a York victory and the usurpation of the Lancaster king, Henry VI. Edward III, Richard's brother, is now on the throne. Edward III is married to Queen Elizabeth, a Woodville. The other Woodvilles, relatives of the queen, are in red. They are upstart royalty with scant lineage, disdained by the Yorks for their prior support of the Lancasters, and their opportunistic jump in status with little bloodshed of their own. Richard cuts through them all to achieve the throne. Once crowned, the blood continues to flow, with Richard's murder of Edward III's young sons, the princes Edward and York. Out of France comes a Lancastrian savior, Henry Earl of Richmond, with a throng of troops, and Richard is defeated on the Field of Bosworth and slain.
Cumpsty is a superb Richard; he takes inexhaustible glee in his character's demonic indulgences. Wit, lust, blood, revenge, and power are all toys in the playroom for him as he wins over the audience, and his audacity and grinning wickedness are endlessly entertaining throughout. The three venerable actresses who play the senior women of the play—Maria Tucci as Queen Elizabeth, Roberta Maxwell as Margaret, and Judith Roberts as the Duchess of York—are phenomenal foils for Cumpsty, slashing at him with a snarl of curses and ripostes. Cumpsty and co-director Brian Kulick are to be commended for leaving Margaret's cursing scene in, in which the deposed Lancastrian queen condemns the whole of the Edwardian court in some of the most furious language in Shakespeare. "Rooting, abortive hog", "bunch-backed toad", "dog" and "spider" are some of the Margaret's gentler animal metaphors for Richard in that scene. It is often cut due to its many references to past events from the more obscure Histories. But grief and fury fuel Maxwell, and it explodes into a corker of a scene in this production.
The design team has styled a visually sumptuous court. Mark Wendland's set is a beautiful octet of sparkling chandeliers over a stage surrounded by mirrors. Oana Botez-Ban's costumes are striking, as mentioned earlier, particularly the shiny leather fetish that becomes en vogue at court once Richard is crowned. The costumes have the effect that leather is famous for—a mixture of danger, action, and sex.
It is bizarre, however, to see Richmond, played by Graham Winton, in this same style get-up. Richmond is a hard role to sell with all his piousness and cheery pluck. Winton is not helped by the fact that his Richmond character, hastily introduced toward the very end, is dressed like an ally of Richard, rather than the representation of a new reign. Too often this role comes off as an afterthought in Richard III productions, and it is a shame that more wasn't done to avoid that here.The final "fight" between Richard and Richmond, a traditionally feisty tangle, is astonishingly anti-climactic. Richard, after howling his famous plea "A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!", is confronted by Richmond, who inexplicably pulls out a pistol. This causes Cumpsty to turn around in shock, kneel, and take Richmond's bullet execution-style. Guns have never been introduced in the action prior to this; all other characters carry daggers, and the princes are murdered with pillows. The gun is an incongruous weapon choice, and Richmond's victory is cheapened by it. Even more baffling is the choice to have Richard not fight to the very end. His whole reputation was made on the battlefield. He is a rotten soul who loves to cheat. He believes he is going to hell no matter what. The sight of a gun pointed at him should not drop his jaw. After all, Richard and death are old friends.