Director Miles Potter sees “Richard’s theatrical ancestors” as “the Vice characters of medieval plays” whose “stated mission” was to “destroy virtue wherever they found it. In order to do so, they would do anything, assume any role, in order to suborn the natural order and attempt the triumph of evil.” In his production at the Patterson, Seana McKenna thoroughly realizes Potter’s conceptual premise in a Richard who is, to be sure, a versatile actor in his society and a consummate schemer too but, more to the point, a spontaneously destructive cancer in human form. This Richard is in body and voice a shriveled thing, an ugly boil upon the blameless, an irritating fly one cannot swat, but also he is inherently malicious and inhuman, almost not of this world. Call him Vice, call him Richard, call him too many a political leader of our time, he shakes the foundations of decency, compassion and good wherever he goes.
Richard is a self-celebrating creature, one who bites into any possibility for destruction, and Seana McKenna’s female registers in voice work to the advantage of Potter’s conception. She does not speak with masculine weightiness but, instead, in piercing and tonally squeezed jabs, in shrill upward ascents, and always with a gossipy urgency, often with an intimate tone. Richard never shuts up but controls others by incessant chatter, as if dominance in speech will make him ruler of the world he regards with shiny, piercing, mischievous and acidic eyes. His voice is otherworldly and insidious and, as a person, he flows like corrosive liquid into any conversation, into any private space. This Richard forces others to react, seems ever present and everywhere, so no one is free of him. He says what he must to take possession of others and destroy whatever control they have that isn’t already his.
The fundamental issue of the Potter/McKenna Richard III and, by implication, of human existence –is the ownership of reality through speech. The famous seduction of Lady Anne, played with ferocious and youthful indignation by Bethany Jillard, is one of many examples of Richard’s method and here the newly widowed Anne is charmed, ultimately into the bed of her husband’s murderer, into bed with evil. She may begin the encounter unleashing her rage, but Richard dances verbally with her every word and takes the lead in their dance of words. He thus claims the intensity of her personal feeling, claims what is hers. He is a usurper in words as much as in the political realm. Evil wants into everything, because it’s there.
The encounter with Queen Margaret, shortly after, becomes in turn a battle of good and evil, a battle of autonomous voices in which Richard will use any means to destroy such autonomy in others. As Margaret, Martha Henry mines the resonating depth of her words, shapes them with dramatic elongations and cadences that seem like castle walls forbidding Richard any entry. She speaks deliberately in pronouncements with foot-stomping emphasis in her voice. She doesn’t submit in reaction, makes little concession in words, and if Richard is a supreme actor, a role-player who adjusts performance to underlying intention, then Margaret denies him from solid ground. If Richard speaks hurried and wiry phrases, hers are solid as rock as she “roles” over him.
It’s a crucial scene because we are given a counterbalance of good’s grand stature denying creeping evil. If Richard’s intent is to undermine, nay, pollute good, Margaret‘s solid voice and manner reaffirm not only virtue but existence of independent will that is free of evil’s infiltration. We note much later that the insistent Duchess of York counsels “Be not tongue-tied” in a scene with numerous references to words. For good to battle evil, in Shakespeare and Potter, it must take uncompromising human form that is strong in speech, unwavering in person, and articulate.
Shakespeare’s brilliantly-employed device of having Richard take the audience into his confidence as implied co-conspirators is a gem of the theatrical canon because these asides put us confidently –and willingly- on the inside track of Richard’s schemes. Richard seems a constant winner, he does not give up, and because any silence means space for another to claim control, he talks and talks and talks –and of course we have to listen. This constant role-player is writing the play we watch as it unfolds and we applaud his theatrical devices which are unending and many. When his words of comfort are shown in an instant after to be mere manipulation, we thus become dirty with him. When his lowly bows seem to rub his deformity in the faces of others, done with beautiful spite by McKenna, we to some degree share his distaste for them.
Richard attacks and retreats in speech as required and each victory fuels his contempt for others. His only acknowledgement of others is to undermine them, destroy them ultimately, shout “Off with his head!” and reduce them to nothing. Richard’s dismissal of Buckingham is as arbitrary as his other deeds –to win, evil must be arbitrary and catch good off guard- and because Richard ignores him, Buckingham no longer exists. He and his words served Richard, after all, and now neither do so. We don’t think of Marlowe’s “winning words” of a conqueror in witnessing Richard at work, but a creeping presence and quickly propelled words that bring disease to body and soul. Such evil can see itself only in the ruin it does, understand others only as far as their virtue can be mastered. Such evil is hungry for more evil and never full.
Miles Potter has created an unobtrusively energetic production and made sure that each character embodies a distinct identity. His cast serves his concept well with honed performances too many to detail here and, as a result, we experience a realm of distinctly individual spirits in peril and sometimes in defiance of evil. It’s a production that moves briskly from one situation to the next, driven by the motivating presence of Richard. Throughout, speech is echo to characterization, reinforcing one’s evolving realization that to speak effectively is to exist. Still, if Potter’s ethereal choreography of the final battle scene and Richard’s death is reassuring, it is not so for long.
Richard is dead, but his repertoire of destructive devices remains open to use in the world outside the theatre. Shakespeare is indeed our insightful and relevant “contemporary,” according to Jan Kott, as he explores Richard’s and our obsessive control of people and situations. The need to undermine, demean, dismiss, humiliate, hurt and finally eradicate are not simply potent and disturbing characteristics of a playwright’s creation, but everyday qualities we find in average folks as they neuter others into speechless inarticulation. If others make no sense while speaking words imposed upon them and not their own, if they can’t speak their own process of making sense but must constantly respond instead to attack of some kind until they exist only as response, then individual reason itself is being undermined and evil can thus do as it pleases.
Potter’s production is a gripping exploration of how evil becomes a reality in every human experience. The sex of the lead actor is simply not an issue because, even as he seems a pitiable and mundane man of no distinction, McKenna’s Richard is at the same time a disturbingly inhuman force that works with masterly ease to destroy anyone at will and without remorse. He is capable of rallying his soldiers with a rousing and defiant “If not to heaven then hand in hand to hell” and seem infused with cosmic proportion. Minutes later, however, he can enter the stage with a faint and almost inconsequential “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse” and make his need sound simply pragmatic. There are many such instances throughout the production where one is given a fresh take or a challenge to rethink and reconsider Shakespeare’s lines and meaning and ourselves.
A compelling feature of Potter’s splendid large cast is how, in limited time, each one becomes an individual of some human value in our eyes and does so in concise theatrical detail. We believe these characters –the young woman’s confusion and needs in Bethany Jillard’s Lady Anne, the precocious and guileless confidence of the princes, the maternal and vulnerable concern of Yanna McIntosh’s Queen Elizabeth, the efficient but naïve sycophancy of Wayne Best’s Buckingham, the naïve congeniality of Nigel Bennett’s Hastings, and all the others. It’s a cast of unwavering substance that creates a genuinely human world around Richard and I could be here for days if I counted all the ways. Because I still feel the unyielding impact of, especially, Richard, Lady Anne, Queen Margaret and Buckingham, in my mind, I’m sure this production in reflection will continue to have much more to say.