WASHINGTON — Washington Watching Sir Ian McKellen's portrayal of Richard III in the Royal National Theatre's production of Shakespeare's play is a little like looking at the photographs Diane Arbus used to take of freaks.
While we are always aware of the monarch's deformities, we are equally aware of his attempts to conceal them. The withered hand is tucked into a pocket; the hunchback is minimized by the expert tailoring of this updated production's military uniforms and evening clothes. And though the limp and a "Phantom of the Opera"-like grossly asymmetrical hairline are constant reminders of the character's freakishness, he appears, like Arbus' subjects, defiantly proud, determined to be normal.
But McKellen's Richard can never be normal. He suffers from an emotional defect far more crippling than his physical ones -- he is totally devoid of human warmth.
That iciness is the key to this production, directed by Richard Eyre and currently at the Kennedy Center as part of the most extensive U.S. tour in the National Theatre's history.
Eyre sets Shakespeare's 15th century history play in the 1930s, where tyranny has a fascist ring and designer Bob Crowley's sparse, overly composed physical production exhibits an eerily Teutonic sense of order.
It is an interpretation that can be praised for its consistency and contemporary political relevance (calling to mind dictators from Hitler to Ceausescu). But at the same time, it reveals disappointingly few of the layers that make this homicidal Shakespearean character one of the most terrible tyrants in Western literature.
Not until the fourth act, when we see the full extent of the hatred Richard's mother bears her son do we begin to understand what might have turned this man into such a cold killer. Rosalind Knight delivers a one-note portrayal of this matriarch, but it is partly excused by the fact that the vehemence of her enmity suggests how Richard became his mother's son.
But it's too little too late, denying us the sort of complexities with which Stacy Keach imbued his gleefully evil but vulnerable Richard at the Shakespeare Theatre two years ago. There are so few shadings to McKellen's performance and Eyre's staging is so calculatingly composed that displays of genuine emotion -- an assassin's sudden cowardice or even a mother's grief -- seem out of place and, in a few sorry cases, almost laughable.
A major exception is Charlotte Cornwell's stunning depiction of Queen Elizabeth, whose husband was murdered by Richard and whose daughter he now hopes to wed. Cornwell pits Elizabeth's maternal affection against Richard's cruelty with such tough-spirited intelligence that her portrayal enhances McKellen's.
But ultimately, the coldness of McKellen's interpretation and the production as a whole proves more distancing than frightening. This "Richard" is intense, but not compelling. And yet, there is a power to the text even ice cannot numb. Seeing this updated rendition in our nation's capital in an election year leaves you hoping -- but not at all convinced -- that this sort of venomous intrigue isn't going on in the smoke-filled back rooms of political power.
When: Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 5 p.m.; matinees Saturdays at 2 p.m. Through July 19.
Where: Kennedy Center, Washington.