“I am myself alone.” These haunting words of the title character convey Gift Theatre’s take on Richard III. Director Jessica Thebus presents the action as unfolding within the theater of Richard’s mind; when he dies, the stage goes dark. In this imaginative vision of the play, by slaying Richard, Richmond destroys the stage upon which his triumph would be celebrated. The rest is silence.
The famous opening lines of the play, “Now is the winter of our discontent/ Made glorious summer by this son of York,” are not the first we hear. Rather we see Richard (a masterful Michael Patrick Thornton) brooding by his tent on the eve of battle at Bosworth Field. His first speech, a command, “Give me some ink and paper” (5.3.49), pairs with his last, an entreaty, “A horse! A horse! my kingdom for a horse” (5.4.13), to bracket the action of Gift’s production. Within this frame, his last day on earth, Richard communes with the deeds that constitute his life, first the memory of their doing and then the confrontation with their consequences, the dreadful accusations of the ghosts of his victims and the fatal blow of their avenger.
Richard III is the last of a set of four plays. The first three, the three parts of Henry VI, tell the story of the loss of England’s empire in France, the division of the House of Lancaster, and the Wars of the Roses. The triumph of the House of York bridges Henry VI, Part Three and Richard III, the former depicting its victory on the battlefield at Tewkesbury and the latter its installation in power with the coronation of Edward IV. (Actually, this is his second coronation but that’s another story which Chicago Shakespeare Theater will tell in the fall with Barbara Gaines’s distillation of Henry VI, Parts Two and Three and Richard III as a single theatrical event, Civil Strife.) Richard III then goes on to repeat the cycle, depicting the division and fall of the House of York. For the first audiences of these plays, the fact that the cycle had not been repeated with the House of Tudor was a public good that outweighed any complaints they might have had against this dynasty.
The decision to include material from Henry VI, Part Three in this production of Richard III is audience friendly. It makes intelligible the madness and hatred of Margaret (an imperious Shanesia Davis) and explains the appearance of two of the ghosts who accuse Richard, Henry VI (Martel Manning) and his son, Prince Edward (Jay Worthington). The line “I am myself alone” is also from Henry VI, Part Three (5.7.84) as are the lines in which Richard declares his plan to reach the throne: “Henry and his son are gone; thou, Clarence, art next; / And by one and one I will dispatch the rest” (5.7.90-91).
No less than murder, marriage has a part in Richard’s schemes and Thebus gives full attention to Richard’s two wooing scenes, first with Anne (Olivia Cygan) and then with Elizabeth (Jenny Avery), for the hand of her daughter Elizabeth (who we see walk silently across the stage). Ms. Cygan’s Anne shows both the fire and softness of youth, first angry than yielding. The role of a woman of her rank was to be given in marriage for political alliance and to bear children to advance the family fortunes, especially sons to carry on her husband’s name, possibly to claim the throne. Anne’s father had given her to a Lancastrian pretender, why should she not give herself to a Yorkist one? Richard gloats at his victory, “Was ever woman in this humor wooed? / Was ever woman in his humor won?” (1.2.227-28). But there is calculation on both sides and to Anne the credit of goodwill in playing the role of peacemaker to her father, Warwick’s king-maker hence war-maker.
In the case of Elizabeth, the gloating—“Relenting fool and shallow, changing woman!” 4.4.431)—is out of place; Elizabeth has clearly won the engagement. Like the accomplished political person the historical Elizabeth Woodville was, Ms. Avery effectively counters each of Richard’s arguments. She does, of course, have the stronger case (‘You want to marry your niece?’); she deserves credit for her refusal to be intimidated by Richard and the way she challenges him at every turn. I wish Ms. Avery had shown some of the courage and control of this encounter in her portrayal of Elizabeth’s growing alarm and grief as Richard destroys her family.
Before he can assail Elizabeth, Richard must face his mother, the Duchess (Caroline Dodge Latta), the last of the four strong woman of this play, who speaks her final word to her son: “take with thee my most grievous curse/ Which in the day of battle tire thee more/ Than all the complete armor that thou wearest” (4.4.188-90). Ms. Latta, who also plays the Bishop of Ely, one of Sir Thomas More’s eyewitness sources for his History of King Richard III, delivers these lines with unexpected energy.
As the action is presented as the usurping tyrant’s recollection, all of it occurs before the steady gaze of Mr. Thornton’s usually wheelchair-bound Richard. Though Richard’s deformity is noted, his mental acuity as the wily Machiavel is foremost in our mind and, as in Hamlet’s dumb show, we expect to see it bodied forth in physical stealth, nimble villainy. Its absence in Mr. Thornton’s case, however, does not detract from his Richard but adds menace; his massive form makes palpable the motive Shakespeare gives Richard: he is “determined to prove a villain” because “cheated of feature by dissembling Nature” (1.1.30, 19). In speech, gesture, and movement Mr. Thornton enables us to see into Richard’s soul, desirous of command, sternly controlling, and full of malice. He makes us see Richard’s pangs of conscience after the visit of the ghosts. When, speaking for both prosecution—and defense—“I am a villain. Yet I lie: I am not. / Fool, of thyself speak well. Fool, do not flatter” (5.3.192-93)—Mr. Thornton’s Richard slaps himself, we feel his torment as if we had ourselves been struck. His portrayal of Richard’s internal division was the tragic counterpart of Peter Seller’s comic Dr. Strangelove. At the end, the stark image of Mr. Thornton out of his wheelchair and stripped of any other support calling for a horse gives a power to Richard’s last line that it could seldom have had in the long history of the play’s performance.
Thomas J. Cox as Clarence showed him to be the clever reasoner that Richard warned the murders they would find and he made us feel Clarence’s terror in recounting his nightmare. (But I regret that this production cut the line, “Clarence is come: false, fleeting, perjured Clarence” (1.4.55), which I had just heard Dan Waller deliver at Court Theatre as the sometime-Shakespearean actor James Tyrone, Jr. in Long Day’s Journey into night.) Keith Neagle captured both the aristocrat and the player in his portrayal of Buckingham as Richard’s enthusiastic accomplice till even he must draw a line. Adrian Danzig gives us the sense of life at court playing both patron and client, King Edward lamenting that none stayed him from signing Clarence’s death warrant and Tyrell coolly informing Richard of the murder of his nephews. Their murder as well as that of Anne is shown on stage bathed in eerie blue light in JR Lederle’s lighting design, which at every point, not least the dramatic ending, strengthens the vision of this production. This is an excellent production of one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays; a fitting tribute to Shakespeare’s artistry in this anniversary year.
Joseph Alulis is a professor of politics and government at North Park University, Chicago. He earned his PhD in political science from the University of Chicago with a dissertation on Alexis de Tocqueville. He has published a number of articles on Shakespeare as a political thinker, most recently, “The Very Heart of Loss” (2012) on Antony and Cleopatra, and is co-editor of a collection of critical essays entitled Shakespeare’s Political Pageant (1996). He is also an instructor in University of Chicago’s Graham School, Continuing Liberal and Professional Studies.