—— Richard III (Bob Frazer) in RICHARD III, Bard on the Beach 2011. Photo: David Blue
Bob Frazer is brilliant. Let’s just say that ten times out loud before we get to the rest of Kathryn Shaw’s deliciously entertaining production of Richard III. Frazer is brilliant, and the great role of Richard may be his greatest conquest yet, even better than his remarkable achievements as Hamlet and Biff Loman.
First, there’s the physicalization. Rather than simply playing him as a deformed hunchback—he has a hump but it’s barely noticeable—Frazer has shaved his head and given his Richard two short aluminum crutches on which he can navigate with great dexterity, and a bum right leg so that when he takes a step his right foot twists and drags behind him. The splendid effect is of a malevolent spider or a character out of Batman.
Yes, Richard is a monster of sorts but Frazer also completely humanizes him. His leers and grimaces, his expressions of self-amazement and the dark clouds of anger that roil across his face are remarkably transparent. In the Renaissance tradition of the stage Machiavel—the ambitious, immoral character for whom the end (almost always power) justifies the means (almost always murder)—Richard has a great many soliloquies, sharing his thoughts, his plots, and his ironic delight in his own cleverness and villainy directly with the audience. He can hardly believe that he is able to seduce Lady Anne (a somewhat one-dimensional Melissa Dionisio), even in the presence of the corpse of her husband, whom he has had murdered: “Was ever woman in this humour woo’d? Was ever woman in this humour won?!”
Richard is his own best audience. An excellent actor—charmer, con man, bully but always a performer—he watches himself and shares with us a mutual delight in and admiration of his prowess, even when its results are terrible and grotesque. He does, after all, arrange for the murders and executions of his brother King Edward IV (a fine Joel Wirkkunen), his other brother Clarence (Craig Erickson, solid as ever), his two young nephews and heirs to the throne (Hayden Davies & Dante Zago), most of the members of Edward’s court, Anne (after he makes her his wife and queen), and even his most loyal ally and confidant, the equally ambitious and nasty Buckingham (Scott Bellis, terrific as ever), who performs alongside Richard in a great scene of phony “devotion and right Christian zeal” that lands Richard the crown of England.
The play’s strong women are left mostly to lament and curse their bad luck in being related to him: his mother (Nicola Lipman), his brother Edward’s wife Queen Elizabeth (Jillian Fargey, who has a great confrontation scene with Frazer’s Richard near the end—two very strong actors going head-to-head) and Queen Margaret (a chilling Linda Quibell), widow of Henry VI, one of Richard’s earlier victims. A bitter old woman in rags, Margaret powerfully curses Richard and the entire court, foreshadowing the bloody events to come. And the ending, Richard’s defeat at the hands of Richmond (Kyle Rideout), who will become Henry VII, is played out in an excellent swordfight—Richard’s crutches his swords—nicely choreographed by Nick Harrison.
An early play of Shakespeare’s, Richard III often borders on comic absurdity. Director Shaw has chosen to embrace that rather than trying to fix it. At first the laughs seem a little cheap, as in the posturing of Clarence’s murderers (Rideout and Josue Laboucane). By the time the foppish Lord Mayor (Wirkkunen) comes on, the comedy seems a more organic component of the style. And when Buckingham kicks the severed head of one of Richard’s executed enemies as though it were a soccer ball, we’re all in on the gag. Sheila White’s eclectic costumes are less successful in conveying a sense of what kind of play this is and where it lives.
A definite crowd-pleaser and sure-fire hit, this is a Richard—and a Richard—that will be talked about for a long time.