In the second scene of Shakespeare's "Richard III," the play's villainous hero, succeeds in a matter of minutes in seducing Lady Anne, whose young husband he has recently murdered, over the even more recent corpse of her beloved father-in-law. When the unfortunate woman leaves the stage, Richard turns to the audience and exults:
"Was ever woman in this humor woo'd?
Was ever woman in this humor won?
I'll have her, but I will not keep her long."
When Ian McKellen spoke those lines Tuesday night at the Kennedy Center at the Washington premiere of the Royal National Theatre of Great Britain production of the play, much of the audience laughed. Those who laughed must have done so because they knew the lines are funny or because they remembered such great Richards as Laurence Olivier (in his well-known 1954 film) or Stacy Keach (in his memorable performance at Washington's Shakespeare Theater two seasons back). They certainly could not have been laughing at Ian McKellen, who delivered the lines in a dour, humorless way.
The success of this much ballyhooed, cheerless production (now on the stage of the center's Opera House until July 19) is hard to fathom. But this "Richard" is all too common an example of the sort of productions that dramatic masterpieces -- whether musical ones by Mozart or purely verbal ones by Shakespeare -- receive nowadays when a director's (or a star actor's) "concept" becomes more important than an author's text.
In the "Richard III" of director Richard Eyre and star Ian McKellen, the concept is British fascism in the 1930s. The time of the play has been updated from the end of the War of the Roses in the late 15th century to the period between the two World Wars that produced fascist dictatorships in Germany (under Hitler) and Italy (under Mussolini) and -- for a while -- a powerful facist movement in Great Britain itself.
That, then, must explain the ranting style in which Shakespeare's lines were delivered; Eyre and McKellen have obviously paid careful attention to the films that recorded the manner in which Hitler and Mussolini strutted their stuff. But it does nothing to illuminate Shakespeare's play or the character that gives that drama its name. One can go even further: This forbiddingly dark production obfuscates and even closes the door upon such understanding.
The role of Richard is descended from a character in late medieval drama that was simply called "the Vice." He was a comic trickster, a personification or an allegorical representation man's (or woman's) propensity toward viciousness, and he enjoyed a special relationship with the audience.
The manner in which he humiliated his victims was often hilarious and so was the way in which he let the members of his audience in on the joke, usually pointing up the moral for them. It wasn't the case that the playwrights who created these characters approved of the viciousness that made the Vice so attractive. The point was that viciousness is itself seductive -- why else would we succumb to it and damn ourselves to eternal fire?
Strictly speaking, there are no vice figures in Shakespeare's plays. But there are several characters -- most prominently Richard, Falstaff and Iago in "Othello" -- who demonstrate this earlier character's continuing vitality. In his essay on Iago, the poet W.H. Auden called that character "the Joker in the pack" and that description fits Richard. He is continually making cracks about his crimes, always letting us in on the joke and allowing us to feel superior to those he's just made fools of.
In many respects, Richard is the most demanding role in Shakespeare, because there are so many soliloquies, speeches and asides directed to the audience. He's essentially a stand-up comic, and it's no accident that the great Richards have themselves been great comedians (like Alec Guinness) or actors with considerable comic gifts such as Olivier or Keach.
McKellen may indeed have such comic gifts, but they are not on display in this production. His Richard is charmless, and he is as much a monster in the way he appears to the audience as he is in the core of his being. And Richard has to be charming. In Shakespeare's conception, Richard may be a hunchback with a withered arm and leg (the physically graceless McKellen just does the arm) and other characters may variously refer to him as "a bottled spider," "a hunchbacked toad," "devil" and "Hell's intelligencer," but if he weren't so beguiling how could he have bvfooled so many of them? The list of those he seduces includes his brothers, Edward IV and the Duke of Clarence, the wily Lord Hastings and the even wilier Duke of Buckingham and just about everyone else in the play -- including us, the audience.
It is only in Act IV when Richard decides to kill his little nephews that Shakespeare turns the tables on Richard, alienating his protagonist from our affections. That's part of what makes a drama a drama -- the ever-changing curve of our responses to what we perceive.
None of this drama is currently on stage at the Kennedy Center, and that is at least part of the reason why the production is so boring. Eyre and McKellen make Richard repellingly unattractive from the beginning. To them, Richard and the society of which he is a part is as hateful as fascism, and their attitude makes the play disaffecting. Richard has no sex appeal in the extraordinary scene in which he seduces Lady Anne and no appeal elsewhere. For some reason, McKellen has chosen to deliver his speeches as if Richard has a speech impediment in addition to his other disabilities.
And what a speech impediment it is. He continually chokes on his own phlegm, sneezing and spewing it out in all directions. (Indeed, there are times when one feels that what this Richard needs to save his kingdom is not a horse, but a good ear, nose and throat man.) And this from a character who is supposed to be a great communicator, a villain capable of persuading his victims that he is their champion.
But what is ultimately so disquieting about this production -- in which the playwright's language is often garbled beyond recognition and his dramatic ingenuity sacrificed to directorial concept -- is that most of the audience applauded it so vociferously. At intermission one suspected that the audience was actually bored -- people were perusing program books to parse out what had transpired and many eyes had the glazed look that comes when what is supposed to have transfixed us has proved monumentally uninteresting. But cheer they did, because this was supposed to be a great play in a great production by the renowned National Theatre of Great Britain.
There is a good deal of talk nowadays about Western civilization being under siege by the forces of multi-culturalism and revisionism that would undo the monuments of classic European culture. But it is in such attempts as this "Richard" to make those monuments "relevant" that really give genuine cause to worry.
Whatever "Richard III" is or can be, it should not be boring. This "Richard" is exactly that, and what the National Theatre's Eyre and McKellen have done to this play makes one want to paraphrase Prince Hamlet's rejoinder to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern about the mindless deceits they have tried to practice on him: How unworthy a thing they have made of it, how they have plucked out the heart of its mystery, and how they have failed to make it speak.
Stephen Wigler is a critic for The Baltimore Sun.