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Richard III: Reign of terror
Avon Theatre
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Martha Henry

Play summary | Globe and Mail review

From the program:

The Yorkists have won their battle against the ruling house of Lancaster, and Edward IV is on the throne. But Edward's murderous and misshapen brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, has little taste for peace. He has grander plans for himself - plans that will prove fatal to those unlucky enough to stand between him and the crown.

The Globe and Mail's review:

The king's his own jester
Monday, July 15, 2002 Print Edition, Page R3

Rating: **

From the 50th-season celebrations at the Stratford Festival, Martha Henry sends word: Richard III is a comedy and she will direct it accordingly.

This may not come as news. Scholars have long noted the dark wit in the villainous title character's self-conscious speeches and outrageous actions.

Productions as early as the one Tyrone Guthrie directed for the festival's opening season in 1953 have stressed the humour in the role; Richards from Alec Guinness on that historic occasion to Ian McKellen on film in 1995 and Stephen Ouimette at the festival's last production in 1997 have challenged audiences to laugh at the hunchbacked usurper.

But few have gone as far as the grinning, tripping Richard that Tom McCamus is now creating on the stage of the Avon Theatre. At Saturday's premiere, 49 years to the day after the festival opened under canvas with Guthrie's production of this play, Henry broadcast her almost slapstick approach from the very start.

As soon as the audience had risen for the entrance of Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson, sung O Canada and given a standing ovation to festival founder Tom Patterson, pomp and ceremony fell away as a silly little voice began a curiously weightless rendition of that famous opening line: "Now is the winter of our discontent." McCamus's misshapen Richard soon crawled out from some corner of the set and promptly fell flat on his face.

The production continues in this vein, juxtaposing a clumsy, guffawing villain, more disruptive than seductive, with a Yorkish court of fancy dress but thinly disguised scheming. It's a bold idea but one that would be much more convincing if Henry gave us the room to appreciate it. Instead, she piles on the gestures and jokes in a production where what should be telling detail feels increasingly like distracting clutter.

What is it that Richard is doing when he repeatedly pulls a small knife out of his boot and seems to apply it to the trembling of his twisted hand? Why are his lieutenants aping his movements in some weird game of Simon Says when he gives out the commands to defend his crown? Who is that lascivious woman wrapped only in bedsheets who paws at Hastings when news comes to him in the middle of the night?

Allan Wilbee's unfortunate designs for the show also create an impression of busyness. The heavily detailed period costumes seem at odds with Henry's desire to re-examine the play, while the set of twisted trees and metal scaffolding is merely ugly.

As can often happen at Stratford, where designers have to finish their work long before the director has started working with the actors, the physical aspect of the production doesn't serve the dramatic interpretation.

What both design and performance do share is an overblown style, and that can become so grotesque it obliterates the point of particular passages. Peter Hutt takes his thuggish version of Buckingham so far toward red-faced bellowing in the scene where Richard pretends to accept the crown reluctantly, that the cleverness of the two men's manipulation of popular opinion is lost.

There are some strong performances from the cast -- the murder of her two young sons forces Seana McKenna's Queen Elizabeth down from haughty contempt to desperate grief. Scott Wentworth does double duty as her collapsing husband Edward IV and a fine version of his brother Clarence dreaming of his own demise on the eve on the event. Wayne Best makes Hastings effectively smarmy.

And there are some less interesting ones: Sarah Dodd seems unsure as to how Lady Anne will take Richard's attempts to woo her over her husband's coffin. Playing the Cassandra to this family, Diane D'Aquila offers a firmly spoken version of mad Queen Margaret, but not a frightening one.

What's missing throughout is the stark horror that would offset the comedy and underline its blackness. McCamus's approach to the role may be an interesting one, but in these surroundings it becomes increasingly powerless. Finally, Richard's death carries neither the weight of inevitability nor the shock of brutality.
Richard III runs at the Stratford Festival's Avon Theatre in repertory to Nov. 3. For information: 1-800-567-1600 or Back to main theatre page

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