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Home :: Archive :: 2006 :: March ::
Handsome Richard III?
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 17.0088  Wednesday, 1 March 2006

From: 		Matt Henerson <
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Date: 		Sunday, 26 Feb 2006 15:45:58 -0500
Subject: 17.0072 Handsome Richard III?
Comment: 	Re: SHK 17.0072 Handsome Richard III?

In examining major English-language productions of RICHARD III over the 
last hundred years or so, it seems to me that handsome Richards have 
been the rule rather than the exception.  I expect that, in the United 
States, this has as much to do with the economics of theatre as with 
anything else.  Richard is considered a "star part," and most regional 
theatres are unlikely to undertake a production of the play unless they 
have a recognizable actor--locally or nationally, depending on the size 
and economic power of the venue--in the title role.  More stars are 
attractive than otherwise, and therefore the roster of American and 
Canadian Richards includes Denzel Washington, Byron Jennings, Al Pacino, 
Colm Feore, Christopher Plummer, Paxton Whitehead, and Brian Bedford, 
while even in the UK, actors like Alan Howard, Robert Lindsay, Anton 
Lesser, Anthony Sher, Ian Holm, Ian Richardson, Alan Bates, Derek 
Jacobi, Ian McKellen, Kenneth Branagh, and of course Olivier far 
outnumber less conventionally handsome Richards like David Troughton and 
Simon Russell Beale.  And while I agree with Dr. Ross' assertion that a 
handsome exterior can make an evil soul that much more seductive, I 
think Shakespeare's play loses much more than it gains when an 
attractive star plays the title role.

Politically, Edward IV's court at the opening of the play is a shark 
tank: numerous powerful, attractive and dangerous men maneuvering to 
position themselves to best advantage upon the anticipated death of the 
failing king.  If Richard appears to the audience to be the least of 
these men, how much more outrageous is his avowed intention to 
over-reach them, and how much more interesting it is to watch the steps 
by which he manages it.  Is anybody really surprised, much less 
appalled, to watch Anne succumb to the charms of Denzel Washington or 
Alan Bates?  How hard does Al Pacino or Kenneth Branagh have to work to 
convince a couple of bit players to murder the respectable but 
frequently obscure actor playing Clarence?  And how unreasonable does it 
actually seem to us to see Olivier or Christopher Plummer center stage 
with a crown on his head?  This is unusual?  Surely such casting is 
Cibber's notion of the character rather than Shakespeare's.  After all, 
Cibber cut Clarence and Margaret, thus removing the only two real 
challengers to Richard's rhetorical primacy.  Cibber reduced the play to 
a melodrama, in which a charismatic and self-congratulatory villain 
knocks off a series of virtuous nonentities as different from one 
another as so many bowling pins.  Cibber created a star part at the 
expense of the play.  No surprise; he was an actor.  I'm an actor 
myself; I can sympathize.  But more often than not these days, I find 
myself watching Cibber's Richard speaking Shakespeare's language.  The 
right performer can make it entertaining, but it's almost never 
exciting, or surprising.

Cibber certainly understood and took Dr. Ross' point.  Evil is 
attractive, the more so when a powerful author gives an evil character a 
recurring and sophisticated voice.  Richard is probably not much more 
homicidal than, for example, Bill Sykes, but he's much more attractive, 
because he's given a chance to explain himself.  Give Richard an 
attractive exterior, and your director is, for all intents and purposes, 
preaching to the choir: "Look how attractive evil can be."  It's a 
statement; a disturbing statement perhaps, but there's no real ambiguity 
to it; nothing upon which to hang a three-and-a-half-hour play.  Make 
Richard small in a world of athletes (Ian Holm, Peter Dinklage, Anthony 
Sher,) or unattractive in a room full of adonises (Simon Russell Beale, 
Ramaz Chkivadze,) or both, and instead of a statement, you're left with 
multiple questions: "How far can a man thus disadvantaged actually get? 
  Can he persuade a beautiful heiress to marry him?  Does he have the 
resources to murder a handful of aristocrats?  Does he have the balls, 
or the imagination, or the sheer heartlessness necessary to wade through 
an ocean of blood to the crown of England?"

"I don't know.  Let's watch and see."

I should conclude by saying that I've never seen it tried, although I 
know it has been many times.  Nor do I feel that stars and/or attractive 
performers should somehow not be allowed to play Richard.  But 
Shakespeare emphasizes Richard's physical appearance far more than that 
of most of his other characters, and I think he does it for a reason. 
The further Richard has to go and the harder he has to fight to get what 
he wants, the more interesting, alarming, surprising, appalling the play 
will be.  The more attractive he is, the easier it will seem.

Matt Henerson

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