When the Stratford (Ontario) Festival announced in 2019 that they would be putting on Shakespeare’s Richard III in 2020, I experienced equal parts excitement and apprehension. Of course, I would have to see it. There was no question about that. Hadn’t I written two novels (one as yet unpublished) about the same character? But I was pretty sure I was going to hate it. As I explained to one of my friends, a fellow writer, it would be like seeing someone I loved be “attacked, libeled, slandered and murdered.”
The pandemic delayed the production by two years, but my misgivings were not assuaged by having to wait. I was still apprehensive as I took my seat in the new Tom Patterson Theatre, preparing myself for a painful afternoon. And then the play began. It probably helped that it featured the inimitable Colm Feore, one of the Stratford Festival’s greats, in the title role. Only the night before I had seen him take on a totally different character as the mizer in the Moliere comedy of the same name and bring down the house with his dark and witty performance, but his Richard surpassed even that.
The play begins in 2012 at the newly-discovered gravesite of the 15th century king. TV cameras and reporters are there for the grand unveiling. And then, suddenly, Richard himself leaps from his grave – there is no other word for it – and prances and cavorts about the stage spinning his malicious webs of deceit and betrayal with almost joyful abandon. He does all of this while keeping up a profoundly difficult gait, knock-kneed and pigeon-toed. How does one walk in such a posture, let alone romp? Even his costumes reflect his physical deformity: the outline of Richard’s bony skeleton is traced out on his back with the S-shaped curve of spinal scoliosis clearly visible.
The time frame of the play is extremely compressed. Fourteen years (from 1471 to 1485) becomes three hours on the stage, three hours that appear to cover no more than a few weeks or at most months of Richard’s life. When the character Richard tells of his wife Anne Neville, “I’ll have her but I will not keep her long,” he ignores the fact that the real Richard was married to Anne for thirteen years, and for all intents and purposes, they appear to have been quite happy. The play implies that he had her poisoned so he could marry his niece, Elizabeth of York, but the real Anne Neville likely died of tuberculosis or some other infectious disease.
Shakespeare makes Richard responsible for all sorts of murder and mayhem, some of which, like the death of his wife, he probably had no part in. Another example is the execution of his brother, the Duke of Clarence. The real Clarence caused enough trouble to bring about his own destruction and needed no help from anyone else. The real Richard, as Lord High Constable of England, may indeed have had a hand in the assassination of the hapless Lancastrian King Henry VI, with which the play begins, but only at the behest of his brother King Edward IV. Both men probably saw Henry’s death as a necessity for stability to England after sixteen years of civil war. And then there are the princes in the Tower, for which the jury is still out, but Shakespeare has no doubts about the mastermind behind their fate either.
Despite my apprehensions about seeing the play, I loved it! I quickly realized that Shakespeare’s Richard was not my Richard, even though both were involved in similar story-lines. The captivating Feore was aided by a stellar cast, including two of the “grand dames” of the Stratford stage: Lucy Peacock as Queen Elizabeth Woodville and Seana McKenna as the Lancastrian Queen Margaret, or perhaps the ghost of Queen Margaret since that lady was nowhere around when most of the events depicted here unfolded. I would pay to see each of those two women read the phonebook. In the end, I had to concede that Shakespeare’s Richard III is a rollicking good story, even if it plays fast and loose with the facts and totally ignores the true timeline of events. Even if it defames a man I have come to care about.
In the very last scene, we are once more transported to the present day when the victorious Henry Tudor, who somehow morphs into a modern-day royal (Prince William?), and his bride Elizabeth of York, who bears a passing resemblance to Duchess Kate, don 21st century garb and stand on a podium with the two boys who played the young princes beside them. The stirring, patriotic hymn “I Vow to Thee My Country” plays in the background. It seems to imply that better days are ahead for England and perhaps for all of us in the coming of a new generation.
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