Thursday, August 02, 2018

Shapes of Villainy

How very different Richard III is with Queen Margaret around. When Jane Howell's production aired in 1982 it was as a conclusion to a series, the first three parts of which were made up by Shakespeare's three Henry VI plays. This gave Howell the rare opportunity to produce Richard III without trimming or removing scenes involving Queen Margaret, a major character in the Henry VI plays but considered superfluous to productions that present Richard III as a standalone story. The difference in seeing Richard III with its intended connecting tissue is enormous, presenting a more complex world for Richard to inhabit and introducing greater nuance and complexity to Richard himself. The performances continue to be good and the linked casting wonderful.

Played by Ron Cook, Richard comes off as both more and less strange than usual. He's a relatively new player on this stage that has already seen plenty of ruthless ambition and bloody betrayal, he having not appeared until the end of Henry VI Part 2. Wikipedia quotes Jane Howell as saying of Richard in this production, "you've seen why he is created, you know how such a man can be created: he was brought up in war, he saw and knew nothing else from his father but the struggle for the crown, and if you've been brought up to fight, if you've got a great deal of energy, and physical handicaps, what do you do? You take to intrigue and plotting." At the same time, though, Richard is much cleverer and much readier to discard bonds of loyalty and family than anyone else who came before. He's a fourth generation blackguard, more streamlined than his predecessors.

Both in Henry VI Part 3 and Richard III Richard talks repeatedly about how his physical appearance has determined his fate. As he says in his famous opening soliloquy:

But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
I, that am rudely stamp'd, and want love's majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
I, that am curtail'd of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinish'd, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity:
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain

This reflects a perspective on reality that had currency in Shakespeare's time, that beauty in some way really did represent virtue and ugliness the opposite. It's key to the scene where Richard seduces Anne Neville, here played by Zoe Wanamaker (familiar to Doctor Who fans as the ever in need of hydrating Lady Cassandra). A lot of productions and commentaries miss this, that Richard telling Anne that her beauty forced him to commit murder doesn't sway her merely as a point of flattery. The power of appearances was very real.

So the interpretation of the scene is a tricky challenge for directors and actors. We have to believe Richard really seduces her or the scene is simply grotesque and absurd. In his introduction to the play in The Norton Shakespeare, Stephen Greenblatt says the scene is more about "Richard's restless aggression transformed during the rapidfire exchange" but he also characterises Anne as, "shallow, corruptible, naively ambitious, and, above all, frightened." No matter how effective Richard is, it takes two to tango, seems to be Greenblatt's idea. But I think it's worth considering Anne's situation a little deeper. Is it mere naive ambition that forms part of her decision to marry Richard? She's a surviving member of the defeated faction of bloody wars--marriage promises not merely power but the possibility of some security for her and hers. This might be accounted for in the "frightened" part but whether she's shallow or corruptible is by no means certain.

Wanamaker plays her with quick eyes, ferocity, and intelligence and when Richard's rhetoric starts to make headway she seems shaken. She looks like a woman who's suddenly unsure of everything she thought she knew, which is just about right.

Greenblatt writes a lot about Richard's erotic power--and cites an amusing incident from the diary of a law student named John Manningham from Shakespeare's time about a woman who fell for the actor Richard Burbage for his portrayal of Richard III. Though I would suggest the attraction Richard holds for the audience is less in his aggression and more in the brashness of his self-confidence, the vulnerability of his repressed self-loathing, and the interplay between these qualities.

Richard's perception of his own ugliness is part of his worldview reiterated from Henry VI Part 3, a decision to own the world's perception of him and use it to his advantage. Of course, it proves a component of his downfall and is essential to what makes the play a tragedy instead of just a beautiful bonfire. When he tries to convince his brother's widow, Elizabeth (Rowena Cooper), to urge her daughter to marry him, he implicitly admits to the crimes Elizabeth accuses him of. When she asks what he can promise to make this an attractive match for her daughter, Richard can only say, "The time to come," meaning as he consolidates power he'll be able to reshape reality to his will, as previous rulers have done.

As I intend to prosper and repent,
So thrive I in my dangerous attempt
Of hostile arms! myself myself confound!

He's climbed this far, at this point he's king, on the belief that he was formed at birth as something by nature wicked. But this requires his brain to operate in two realities at once, he can't be wicked without having some nature that recognises wickedness and this leads to the extraordinary misery of the dream sequence.

Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I.
Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am:
Then fly. What, from myself? Great reason why:
Lest I revenge. What, myself upon myself?
Alack. I love myself. Wherefore? for any good
That I myself have done unto myself?
O, no! alas, I rather hate myself
For hateful deeds committed by myself!
I am a villain: yet I lie. I am not.
Fool, of thyself speak well: fool, do not flatter.
My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,

Margaret (Julia Foster) never goes to war with herself like that. As a murderer she has more focus which gives her curses almost the quality of a natural disaster. The appearances of the ghosts seem natural when the play is filled with references to her curses. Margaret becomes a personification of warfare's bloody legacy.

The restoration of Margaret to the play helps emphasise all the women. She has a conference with Elizabeth and Richard's mother (Annette Crosby) where she first enumerates the crimes against her the other two women have been complicit in. Yet Elizabeth pleads, "O thou well skill'd in curses, stay awhile, And teach me how to curse mine enemies!" And Margaret seems amenable to this. It's as though at this point she has become a free floating force of malevolence. Curses are always so much eerier when they come from the damned.

I really like this production. My only complaint is that Howell reuses actors in different roles a lot. An actor who played a character who died will show up later playing someone else. Sometimes Howell seems to be making a point with this, as when the actors who played Richard's brother and father turn up on Richmond's side at the end of the play. And likely in Shakespeare's time the same actors were playing multiple roles (I've always loved the theory that Cordelia and the Fool in King Lear were played by the same actor). But it dilutes some of the power from the linked casting a bit and gets confusing at times. Otherwise, this is a really nice production.

Twitter Sonnet #1140

A knowing face above a shirt was worn.
Above the trees the atmosphere condensed.
From metal wombs the submarines were born.
Propellers trace where water hunts commenced.
A wall of rock requites an egg for time.
Between the fingers thread is moved a foot.
The pitted tweed began a sodden climb.
On windy top the house became but soot.
A scavenged club bespoke forsaken arms.
A time to come delivered bugs to space.
A ballast floats for hollow wooden harms.
A waterbug proceeds with stickly grace.
A drinking weed began to walk the pond.
But frogs and pads create a sitting bond.

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