Review of Richard III by La Piccola Familia

In its allusions to past, present, and even futuristic theater, the Thomas Jolly Richard III seemed a perfect beginning to the year of Shakespeare commemoration in France, focused as it is on his afterlife. I’m sure that there will eventually be more authoritative accounts of this production, which was probably full of local allusions that I missed. Moreover, it follows the company’s productions of the Henry VI plays, which I didn’t see, and frequently alludes to them. I would normally try to attend a production more than once before writing about it, especially one as complex as this one, where I’m sure I either missed or misremembered many details. Even so, I am going to write about what I remember, with a lot of (probably annoying) parentheses where I have to admit that I either didn’t see or didn’t understand what was going on. With luck, someone better qualified will be able to supplement this account.

I was surprised that most of the people I talked to in Paris interpreted this production simply as something intended to appeal to a young audience, and perhaps, therefore, selling out. In fact, although the focus was on the title character, the play was also given in a remarkably full text (in the translation of Jean-Michel Déprats, which as always was beautifully clear). That is, we got Margaret, some of the Woodville clan, the various murderers, the Scrivener, the strawberries, some of the scenes with the lamenting women, and Stanley’s visit to Richmond. In fact, as I’ll explain below, we also got some of 3 Henry VI. On the other hand, lines were sometimes transposed and scenes telescoped. Richard’s coup d’état seemed even faster and more improbable than usual because of the rapid cutting between scenes. Retrospective narrative was usually replaced by direct speech: Margaret herself was heard repeating her prophecies as they came true for each of Richard’s victims. Tyrrel’s speech about the murder of the princes described his own experience, not that of Dighton and Forrest. It was Edward’s widowed queen herself who made a rapid visit to Richmond before Bosworth and promised him her daughter. The ghosts made all their speeches to Richmond before turning to Richard. The patriotic ending of Richmond’s final speech was of course cut.

What everyone most noticed, however, was that the play turned into a mini-rock concert at the end of the first half, when Richard’s kingship was finally proclaimed—with Richard asking the audience, in English, “Are you with me?” It also depicted a world dominated by technology, with Richard as its master. When he reminded everyone of events during the Wars of the Roses, he clicked his remote and a huge screen at the back of the stage showed images from the company’s earlier productions of the Henry VI plays. On arrival in London, Prince Edward ostentatiously demonstrated his boredom by playing games on his cellphone until Richard switched it off. The electronic sound effects of the cellphone were heard again during Tyrrel’s speech, and this time everyone knew what it meant when they suddenly stopped.

The play took place entirely in darkness penetrated by artificial light, corresponding to the frequent textual references to the “kingdom of perpetual night” (1.4.48). Sophisticated lighting in fact constituted much of the scenery, with shafts not only picking out the characters but also piercing the darkness, dividing the set into separate acting areas, and even creating barriers beyond which it was impossible to pass. The whitened faces of the actors, with their bright red mouths, seemed to have a double purpose: to emphasize the play’s occasional echoes of commedia dell’arte (as with the pair of comic murderers) and to enable them to be seen more easily in this chiaroscuro setting. Black, white, and grey were the only colors, except for the occasional use of red for royalty, which became more pronounced in Richmond’s costume toward the end. There was also elaborate stage machinery, underlining the play’s vertical symbolism: at one extreme, a downstage trapdoor; at the other, a moving platform including a long flight of steps leading to a dais with a throne, where large letters formed the initials of the current king. The steps could also turn into a slide, precipitating characters onto the lower level (as happened to Buckingham when he literally fell out of favor). Whether a scene was played on the top or the bottom was probably important, and if I had seen the production more than once I would have been watching for this sort of thing.

But, if the production seemed to glorify technology, it also reflected our uneasiness about it, mainly by responding to the religious imagery in the text itself. The play began with the lines (on-screen) from 3 Henry VI about Richard’s longing for the crown (3.2.134-95), his entrance from a trapdoor, wearing a pair of burnt and tattered wings, and his invocation of heaven (which had shaped his body) and hell (which he asked to warp his mind appropriately [5.6.78-79]). Then Edward IV’s court appeared on top of the dais, to which Richard climbed. Edward spoke the celebratory lines from the end of 3 Henry VI , but they were set in the context of the end rather than the beginning of his reign: his children (who included Elizabeth) were teenagers and the young prince pulled away from Gloucester’s attempted kiss. The speech broke off, as Edward, staggering down the steps, was choked with asthmatic coughing. While the rest of the court were paralyzed with fear and embarrassment, Richard saved the situation with his delivery of “Now is the winter of our discontent” (1.1.1), and the relieved court swept off on “the lascivious pleasing of a lute” (1.1.13), leaving him to speak the rest of the soliloquy to the audience, with a complete change of tone showing that the helpful brother had been only the first of many impersonations. Thomas Jolly’s Richard was a sort of acrobat: his distorted body seemed made of rubber, his arms and legs twisting like tentacles. He never had any difficulty with the steps of the dais, though—perhaps symbolically—he had trouble kneeling to Anne and to his mother. The performance was built on contrasts of saint and devil; his sudden rages, like the outburst that sweeps Hastings to his death, erupted as if out of nowhere. The first half of the play ended, as usually happens, with the proclamation of Richard as “England’s royal king” (3.7.22), and, as often happens, the audience was encouraged to join in the shouting and to become the audience at a rock concert—but we then saw Richard, on the throne, commit what seemed to be a virtual rape of Anne (perhaps in fact the delayed consummation of their marriage).

The second half began with the director’s most original idea (at least, I’ve never heard of it before): the fulfilment of Anne’s curse, “If ever he have child, abortive be it” (1.2.22). These words were projected on the screen as we heard an offstage scream. Then we saw Richard on the lower stage level alone, hearing what we heard; a woman in black, perhaps the midwife, brought him a stillborn baby. He held it for a while—I could not see any expression on his face but perhaps some spectators could—and when he finally put it down and mounted the steps to the throne, it seemed to disappear into the machinery. (I’m not sure whether I understood this correctly. It’s possible that the newborn was some sort of monster and that he was abandoning it, but if it had been alive it would presumably have been heard crying.) Historically, of course, Richard and Anne did have a child who lived to be at least eight years old, dying in 1484. The production connected his realization that he would have no heir with his decision to murder the princes, emphasizing the parallel with Macbeth.

It was a production full of ideas, though I’m not sure whether they all cohered. But, then, the play, as with so much of Shakespeare’s work, can now be seen as a juxtaposition of medieval and (early?) modern influences. So, at different moments, we saw Richard as Technocrat, Richard as Fallen Angel, Richard as Rock Star, and Richard as commedia dell’arte clown, as well as Richard the apparently sympathetic human being. Some of the symbolism suggested that Richard was a fallen angel who wanted to re-fight the War in Heaven: he wore white for the Battle of Bosworth and, in ordering his servants to “saddle white Surrey for the field tomorrow” (5.3.69), he put the emphasis on “blanc.” The realistic-looking white horse that appeared onstage at this point reminded me of Richard Eyre’s 1990 Richard III at the National Theatre, where Ian McKellen’s Richard seemed rapt in a fantasy of Fascist/chivalric heroism. But, given the strongly religious imagery of the French production, it’s possible that this horse was the pale horse on whom Death rides in the Book of Revelation. In Richard’s nightmare, it was the two princes who rode it, and the stylized battle, mostly fought in silhouette, culminated as the lights came up on Richard kneeling beside the dead horse as he shouted, then almost whimpered, his most famous line. (At some point, presumably during one of the blackouts in this battle scene, his costume changed from white to black.) Richmond gave a perfunctory rendering of the first part of his final speech over the king’s dead body, but once he had gone offstage Richard staggered to his feet and made his way up the stairs to the throne. He tried to start the whole cycle again with a click of his remote, but this time the machinery refused to obey him: the set virtually collapsed, throwing him off the throne, and the letters that had formed “R III” on the dais moved around to spell “FIN.” Some spectators saw this set as an embodiment of Jan Kott’s idea of history as the Grand Mechanism. I think this quite likely. We were also, I think, being reminded that the Grand Mechanism was actually in the power of the director—though, of course, the director was also the leading actor.

Richard III by La Piccola Familia, directed by Thomas Jolly, at the Odéon-Théâtre de l’Europe on 20 January 2016.