The Gift Theatre – Richard III

Photo: Claire Demos

I had the immense good fortune of seeing The Gift Theatre’s Richard III on the night of their second preview, and was blown away. The production is thoughtful, beautifully executed, and engaging, particularly in their use of extra-textual theatrical cues to support their reading of Shakespeare’s most famous historical “villain.” These especially salient technical and theatrical decisions serve to highlight Richard as an outsider in his society, and grant the audience special access to his experience. While Michael Patrick Thornton shares the endearingly emphatic girl-with-the-pearl-earrings with the rest of the cast, he is distinguished visually before we even consider his assistive support (Thornton performs most of the show from his wheelchair). The cast’s costuming is united in gray scale, everyone wearing shades of the same black, gray and white, with a distinctive ruff-collar. Richard, of all the characters, lacks the collar, both highlighting his difference and allowing the audience visual access to Richard III’s iconic humped shoulder. Richard though is the only character in color, showing red against the shades of gray, giving emphasis to both the interpretive and physical work of the actor’s hands in fingerless bright red, and distinctly modern, wheelchair gloves. Richard’s dress is not “period,” cueing the audience’s connection into the world of the play through Richard in contrast to the legibly theatrical dress of the other characters.

That is perhaps what I found most surprising and refreshing about this production. Richard III, often portrayed as iconically theatrical, much like a Falstaff, a Henry V or a Rosalind, here plays down that overly performative connotation. At first I chalked it up to acting style, but as the play progressed I began to realize that, dependably throughout, Richard is not talking like anyone else on stage. The other actors speak with a histrionic, dramatic, recognizably “Shakespearean” declamation, but Richard, even in his most famous soliloquy, “Now is the winter of discontent,” breaks with the already established style (since the monologue does not open the show, but is delivered in pieces over the course of Act 1, scene 1). Richard speaks in a realistic, colloquial and thrillingly sardonic mode throughout the play, especially pronounced in his direct addresses to the audience, of which he has many. The comparison between these two modes of performance creates the illusion that Richard is real where everyone else is only performing. When he delights in his ability to manipulate other characters’ assumptions about his (dis)ability, so do we, when he flips a situation on its head, taking advantage of the emotional effect of his walker and wheelchair, we cheer. Thornton’s style makes us forget he’s speaking in iambic pentameter, managing to remain faithful to the beautiful language Shakespeare wrote for Richard, while transforming the cadence and sentence structure to feel completely natural and modern. Richard’s language, along with his costuming, casts him as a liminal character, bridging the world of the audience and the historic setting of the Wars of the Roses in late medieval England.

Richard takes full advantage of that liminal status as a platea character to manipulate the dramatic action of the play itself. Making literal the stage habit of freezing the play for asides, Richard calls “Stop” to pause diegetic action and “Now” to restart it, moving between the frozen actors to comment on the events of the play and pull us into the role of co-conspirators, in on the machinations of his performance. These moments are visually arresting, granting Richard the only motion on stage, maneuvering around his fellow actor’s bodies, now just obstacles, with a sarcastic half-smile. As a conceit, it grants Richard an incredible boost in power. Not only does he have the power to manipulate other characters within the plot, but he has the authority to start and stop the narrative itself on a whim, at times clearly reveling in it, stopping the action just because.

Each of these production choices supports the critical work of this Richard’s physical reality. The assistive walking devices that allow Richard to move on stage function as an immensely effective communicative and emphatic mode. Thornton suffered a spinal stroke in 2003, working through The Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (a partner in this production) to regain the mobility he has today. The Gift Theatre shows Richard in a wheelchair, wheeling himself, or being pushed, depending on the moment, with a walker, with arm crutches, and finally suited in a robotic exoskeleton to mark his coronation as King Richard III. The moment in Act 1 scene 2, when Richard encounters Lady Anne, sticks in my mind as one of the most powerful of the production. When he rises from his chair without help to stand with the walker and approach Anne, punctuating his assertion that “Here” is he “that loves thee better than [Edward] could” (1.2. 148,141), I began to understand the theatrical potential of the supports. As he offers Anne his death, and subsequently persuades her to forgive him, she becomes entangled between Richard and his walker, trapped by him physically just as she will be in their marriage. Though the extent of Richard’s (dis)ability in the text is not made explicit beyond his own descriptions of being “curtailed of fair proportion…deformed, unfinished…scarce half made up” (1.1.18-21), we find the critical power behind a modern adaptation of (dis)ability and how an understanding of existing in an ableist world, a world that was not built for disability, particularly here for the realities and limits of assistive walking technology, colors a strikingly presentist characterization of Richard III. My only major criticism is in the framing of the project. The program announces the production’s intent to “re-define… what (dis)ability and Shakespeare’s great villain look like by utilizing both a disabled actor in the title role as well as assistive devices past and present as articulations of Richard’s protean identity” (Playbill, 3) [emphasis mine]. While I agree that casting an actor who understands living with a disability physically is essential to The Gift Theatre’s reading of Richard III, bringing out innovative dynamics from the shadows of the text to the forefront and giving Richard a life beyond his identity as a villain, grammatically posing Thornton himself, a talented actor, as a physical prop to the project feels negligent to me. As an audience member, the overwhelming feeling is not that the production utilizes Thornton in his identity as a disabled actor, but that Thornton, along with director Jessica Thebus, utilizes a 400+-year-old play to make a statement about ableism in our world, exposing the harmful assumptions society makes about (dis)ability on a daily basis while infusing a dynamism into Shakespeare’s text, and a sardonic vitality into his lead character, to cast Richard’s very villainy as a rebellion against the prejudice of his world, as well as ours.

Hilary J. Gross is a graduate student and instructor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she is pursuing her Master’s and PhD in the English department with a focus on early modern theatre and Shakespeare through the inter-disciplinary lenses of affect, adaptation, and performance. She was the inaugural British Literature Fellow at UIUC, and previously graduated cum laude from Wellesley College with her BA in English literature as a member of the Phi Beta Kappa Eta Chapter of Massachusetts.