This week is one of confessions. Yesterday, I confessed to my rage issue (or lack thereof) and today, I have a deeper, more serious confession to make.
Hi, my name is Harley, and I am a Shakespeare junkie.
It started out small: catching a glimpse at the popular plays in High School, you know, because everyone was doing it. Hamlet. Romeo and Juliet. Twelfth Night. Before long, I was on to the harder stuff: Titus Andronocus, Anthony and Cleopatra, Cymbeline. After that, I spiraled out of control, devouring the histories, joining the Shakespeare Club, performing at the Folger, watching endless Kenneth Branagh adaptations. I no longer knew who I was without Shakespeare; I couldn’t imagine my life without iambic pentameter; I got into reckless arguments about literary theory and the relevance of the apocrypha. I found myself wandering the street, not knowing the time period, speaking in couplets, searching for a folio, just one, to satisfy my craving.
I thought I had shaken Shakespeare, I really did. I had moved on to softer playwrights; I had begun using modern colloquialisms, again; it had been years since I had recited a soliloquy or called someone a “churlish fop.” That was until my older sister, the Athlete, bought me tickets to Richard III at the Shakespeare Theatre in D.C.
I still remember the first time I went to the Shakespeare Theatre (you know it’s good because they use the British spelling of “theater”). Michael Kahn was directing Coriolanus and although it was a school night, I was there with my then-boyfriend (whom I should have known was trouble, given that he not only fed my addiction, but he started our school’s Shakespeare Club). The play was delayed because the stage mechanics were broken (everything at the theater runs on electric tracks, so the props and scenery slide on and off the state) and we watched Michael Kahn stand directly in front of us and redirect the fight scenes. An incomparable experience.
Kahn may be the best living Shakespearean director and his staging and fight sequences are unparalleled. Unlike many directors, he has a real sense of artistry not only in the content and timbre of the piece, but also in the way his actors stand and move onstage. Each scene constitutes a moving, shifting tableau, reflecting the mood of the moment and the relative power of the players. Each moment reflects Kahn’s eye for composition, so the audience views a perfectly composed picture in each moment, with variety and repetition, with symmetry and motion. Watching Kahn’s work is akin to watching one of Caravaggio’s paintings onstage, all dark, tense movement transfigured by brief moments of light. This contrast evokes a simultaneous sense of foreboding with a surprising levity, especially considering that the principle player is a deformed, hump-backed, limping tyrant.
Geraint Wyn Davies played Richard III as a charming, quick-witted underdog, a man whom everyone misread and underestimated, assuming his disarming jokes and his physical disfigurement indicated that his mind was as impotent as his body. To the audience, Richard reveals his plots from the outset, creating an anti-hero for which we root, unwillingly. When Anne agrees to marry him, over the bloodied body of her dead husband, whom Richard has just murdered in cold blood, you feel her disgust but also understand the pathos that leads her to concede. Richard is the tyrant to whom we slowly cede control, unable to resist his charm, knowing as we embrace him that he is simultaneously strangling us. Usually, Richard is played as a cold, heartless villain, but Davies’s portrayal created the kind of cognitive dissonance apparent in the work itself and also reflective of the historical truth of tyrants: they come to power not in spite of our resistance, but because we cannot resist.
Beyond the staging and the star, the play was solid, but not superb. Davies out shined the rest of the cast, although several of the supporting actors were terrific: Tana Hicken (Queen Margaret), Claire Lautier (Lady Anne), Pamela Payton-Wright (Duchess of York), Raphael Nash Thompson (Hastings, Lord Chamberlain), and Aubrey Deeker (Sir William Catesby) were the stand outs. The rest were adequate, at best. The children were distractingly awful, although this Washington Post article disagrees. They were so terrible that I was relieved when they made an untimely exit in the middle of Act IV. Yes, I am a heartless bitch.
What was I confessing, again?
Oh, yes. Hi, my name is Harley, and I am a huge dork.