Colm Feore as Richard III with members of the company in Richard III. Stratford Festival 2022
Now is the winter of our discontent, Made glorious summer by the Theatre's reopening.
Please excuse this blatant paraphrase of famous opening lines of Shakespeare's historical tragedy Richard III. Their author would -- after all, he experienced years of theatre closure during the plague years in 1590's London, so would surely understand the joy with which we now greet the re-opening and, in the case of the new Tom Patterson Theatre, the opening of the theatre in Stratford.
I was so anxious to see a play at the new TPT that I could not wait for the official opening of Richard III, but instead got a preview ticket to see this significant production in its new venue. Significant because it was this play that opened the "new" Festival Theatre back in 1953, with British actor Alec Guinness in the titular role. Significant also because of this history and all that went into this play, of course, because this production takes place in a stellar new theatre.
This is a remarkable production. It does justice to the play in its presentation of the villainous king and populates his world with all kinds of regrettably expendable figures, all of them more transparent and attractive than he. Cast in sombre hues, this is unmistakably not a happy story. But what can we say of the REAL Richard III? Was he really the monumentally evil monarch Shakespeare portrayed?
Almost certainly he was not. Living in Tudor England, under a Tudor queen (Elizabeth I) Shakespeare could not present the man whom Elizabethâ€™s grandsire Henry VII overthrew as anything but a miscreant, but he went much further. Historical revisionism is not new! In Richard he created a monster, one of the most conniving, manipulative and completely black-hearted figures in his whole canon. Richard is so clever that even when he takes us into his confidence, as he does with some frequency as he grasps for the throne, we cannot trust him to tell us the truth. He is THAT bad!
Let me digress a moment. For years I looked for a memorial notice in the Toronto Globe and Mail newspaper that appeared every August 22 commemorating Richard's death at Bosworth Field in 1485. Put there by the Richard III Society of Canada, it was a reliable reminder that Richard was not the arch-villain he was portrayed by the Bard. Ten years ago, a related pro-Richard group organized an excavation of the site in Leicester where Richard was thought to be buried and exhumed his bones. In this remarkable production at the TPT, this is where the show starts, which may be a bit of a surprise to viewers unless they know this background.
As a photographer records the event and a reporter stands by, a man in a Hazmat suit descends into a hole in the stage. Shortly after he disappears, a spectral figure emerges, lurches forward and starts to talk. This is Shakespeare's Richard, and the present becomes the past, as the 'living' Richard intones his wonderful but deceptively sunny first few lines on the stage: â€śNow is the winter of our discontent, Made glorious summer by this sun of York...â€ť
One thing that makes Colm Feore's Richard so utterly memorable in this role is his gait. One can never forget from whence he came with his zombie-like walk. A 537-year-old corpse, he is still as eloquent and persuasive as ever. He gets under your skin. He got under mine. He is eloquent and each of his words has significance, whether it is at face-value or something more nefarious; one listens attentively.
Richard III is not a play for children. Watching it, I thought others should also have a head's up: it may prove too intense for overly-sensitive adults. Reflecting on this, I realized that the new stage plays a role in this. It creates a theatre of such intimacy, where one feels so close to the action and what is happening on stage, and so involved in it, that one has no escape. Every line is highlighted and amplified, and one cannot distract herself with the mundane.
In any case, by the time the interval arrived, after an hour and a half of Richard's conniving and the mounting death toll, I felt real battle fatigue. Luckily, after a walk around the glorious gardens outside and revived by the radiance of the theatre lobbies, I was ready to go back for the rest of the play, which again proved full of surprises.
This theatre is capable of them. Its state-of-the art technology produces amazing special effects. You will be astonished by the pyrotechnic battle scene and the ghosts conjured up in Richardâ€™s tent at the near the end and will fully appreciate Richardâ€™s lament: â€śMy kingdom for a horse!â€ť as his immense charger expires and he is left to face his foes on his unsteady feet.
The actors in this play are uniformly excellent as they navigate their way in the shadows; their acting shines. In the remarkable cast led by the redoubtable Feore, however, some stand out: Ben Carlson as the too-hastily dispatched Hastings and Michaelâ€™s Blakeâ€™s Duke of Clarence come particularly to mind. Seana McKenna makes a wonderful Queen Margaret, thrusting pointed curses at Richard for killing her kin, and Diana Leblanc perfectly fills the role first assigned to her National Theatre School classmate Martha Henry as the unfortunate mother who bore the monster Richard. Andre Sills is someone we can love to hate when he acts as Richardâ€™s co-conspirator, the Duke of Buckingham, until even he betrays Richard.
The real tear-jerkers are the young princes murdered in the Tower, played on alternate dates by promising actors Chase Oudshoorn/Ezra Wreford, and Dominic Moody/ Bram Watson.Â
When it was all over and done, this was not much ado about nothing, it was an unfortunate and yet timely reminder that there are still men walking in this world as cruel and unscrupulous as Richard is portrayed in this play, and they are all too real and alive.
Richard III continues in repertory at the TPT until October 30.