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April 1, 2011

Richard III Recap: Taking Sides

By jmleija
We generally do not side with the homicidal maniacs of a given story. For example, we may see Iago’s point of view in Othello, but in the end, after all he does to ruin the lives of those around him, do we really feel all that sorry for his arrest and eventual torture?

However, as with nearly everything else in Propeller’s production of Richard III, the assumption that we will side with what is right, is turned directly on it’s head.
The hero, and indeed the villain, of the play is the malformed, crippled, and deeply maniacal Richard, played masterfully by Richard Clothier. He quite literally murders his way to the throne, through two brothers, his newly taken wife, and his two young nephews, among others. And there is no shortage of violence in the production as the audience sees eyes drilled out, heads chopped off, fingers bitten through, necks broken, and guts literally yanked out with a hook, all on stage. The blood spattered opaque plastic curtains and dull white plastic robes and masks of the ‘orderlies’ that make up the chorus, leave no doubt of the obscene disregard for human life with which Richard goes about his business. But while it brings fear and revulsion, there is also a sense of guilty exhilaration for such ruthless methods. Such is the imminent danger of death in this world that no one, not even the audience is safe from it. When the orderlies made their way to the audience to walk among us, silent and menacing with their blunt instruments, there was a quiet unease in everyone watching: No one is safe while Richard rules.

And yet.

Propellor’s view of Richard’s humor is dark, brutal, and ironic throughout, enough to wring laughs from even the most strictured audience. His limp and his venom toward a world that has rejected him because of his disabilities is something we can surely relate to. Does this then explain why a bloodied desperate Richard who cries out for a horse on the battlefield elicits our sympathy? He laments, willing to sell the kingdom he earned through so much murder for a single animal to take him away, but when the Duke of Richmond shoots him, I at least, was shuddering with his shock and pain. It dawned on me that I had somehow sided with this lunatic, and was both disturbed and excited to hear him wake again, briefly, laughing evilly, only to be shot a second time by Richmond. I was left with the lingering feeling that this man, his spirit, his cunning, his brutality, is damn near impossible to kill. And somehow we are happy about that. Disturbed, but satisfied that the inhumane part of our humanity cannot be completely excised.

Director Edward Hall describes this as a sort of tacit agreement between the audience and the villainous Richard – that somewhere along the line the audience agrees to go along with him and only at the end do we realize our responsibility for the violence that’s been wrought. In a fascinating and apropos staging decision, the call for the House of Commons to support Richard is made from the audience, making us into the Commons themselves, a Parliament of people who are about to demand bloody Richard’s rule, ignoring the murders he committed to get there, and legitimizing the killings to come.

So put aside all the criticisms some diehard (read: snobby?) Shakespeare fans will have about the parsing of the language; it’s done gracefully, and to affect. The language is still stunning and the play could not live without it. Put aside the argument about whether men should be playing the women in the play; they do so naturally, with no farce, playing as director Edward Hall says, “the person, not the gender.” Put aside qualms about what choral music, and Gregorian chants and, oddly enough, rap, are doing in a play by Shakespeare, and enjoy the eerily smooth scene changes, accompanied by music made completely by the cast, which in the case of Richard serves to unbalance the audience with mirth at the passing of violence and sweep us into a world and time period not our own. Put aside any questions that you might have about the stark setting, the blank men in masks, the implements of torture hanging from the skeletal set pieces. They are there for a reason, as is every other choice that both actors and director have made. Truly, all will reveal itself given time.

If you come out confused, that’s good. If you come out uncomfortable, that’s even better. I heard two men on the way out of the theater last night talking about how the language was so cut up that the beauty of it was lost. I was wondering where they saw beauty in the six or seven murders we’d just seen played out and why, exactly, we have this boxed idea of Shakespeare as “beautiful” and “genius” words that serve to keep us from considering the text as a growing, breathing, living work.

I think they were upset because Propeller doesn’t DO  boring Shakespeare. They don’t do noble, have to love the classics, mourn the breakdown of the English language for the good old days Shakespeare. Unless it’s with a purpose, there is no serious, pontificating Shakespeare. Instead they give us dirty Shakespeare. Brutal Shakespeare. They give us Shakespeare inside out – covered in blood and steeped in the realities of humanity, that begs us to question who we are. And why, however unwittingly, we side with the diabolical murderer after all.


Jen Leija, in addition to being a fifth year senior at the University of Michigan, is a teacher, writer, and marathon runner. She won the Hopwood Underclassman award in essay writing in 2008 and has continued to write in essay, journal, and speech form ever since. Currently she is student-teaching ninth grade English at Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor (hi guys!) while working as a Resident Advisor for housing. She also sings lead in the Pops Jazz Band and is active at St. Mary's Student Parish. As an artist and writer she has loved Shakespeare since the first raunchy lines of "Romeo and Juliet," and everything his work stands for: detail, dirt, and doing incredible things with language in every single line.