Saturday, May 28, 2005

Notes from Ashland

Revisionist historians say that the reputation of Richard III was written by his enemies, and Shakespeare's tragic character study begins with the received history of a conscienceless murderer whose death leaves everyone better off.

Given all that, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's addition of the chorus of grieving women gives us a deeper glimpse not at Shakespeare nor his time nor even Richard III but of a refusal to distinguish between violence and force that is possibly unique to our time.

The OSF production opens with four veiled women singing, "I had an Edward [Henry, Richard, etc.], but a Richard killed him," to a minor-key melody with a deep bass beat like the clanging of a tower door or the pounding of a cannon.

It serves as an introduction to the story for modern audiences for whom the War of the Roses looks like an unintelligible conflict between British Hatfields and McCoys with very little, in the grand scheme of things, at stake. So when Richard comes out in Shakespeare's opening scene with his "winter of our discontent" speech, we see him as bent by history and prejudice into a bitter, spiteful, dissembling, alienated nobleman, very much in character with the story of Richard III written by his enemies and raised into something terrible and universal by Shakespeare.

And James Newcomb as Richard is chillingly sociopathic, bent and spiderlike, filling every corner of the stage with a wiry athleticism and every corner of the play with his character. This production is worth seeing if only for Newcomb's performance.

But I'm blogging about the chorus of lamenting women.

Shakespeare ended the play with a speech by Richmond, who has come to the rescue and ended the reign of Richard III by fighting him to the death. Richmond is like Fortinbras in Hamlet--the one who brings order into a situation that has devolved into chaos. Richmond's speech contrasts with Richard's--where Richard vowed at the beginning to use his influence to sow discord and murder, Richmond vows to heal the wounds of war by uniting the warring families. The two speeches bracket the action of the play. So Shakespeare.

But the OSF production brackets the brackets. Opening with the shrouded lamenting women, it closes with the four women of the play--Elizabeth, Margaret (played as a mad woman, a shrieking ghost), the Duchess of York and Lady Anne, all of whom have been bereft and betrayed by Richard, all of whom have driven if not controlled the action by their vengeful curses. They repeat the earlier chorus: "I had an Edward [Clarence, Richard], but a Richard killed him," and end with, "I had a Richard, but a Richmond killed him."

The implication is that all killings are the same and that the women lament just as fiercely for Richard as for the men and children he killed. Whatever point the play thus makes about love, death and the equivalence of mourning is not Shakespeare's point.

It's still a powerful production. Drama is always a collaboration between playwright (dead, elsewhere or backstage) and the present cast and crew. And when the women turned to Richmond and chanted, "But a Richmond killed him," it sent a chill up my spine as it was intended to.

But--it wasn't until I looked at a script that I saw that it wasn't Shakespeare's chill--and the overlayer of meaning had taken Shakespeare's view of the ending and turned it inside out.

I don't say it shouldn't have been done that way; I only say that it's important to note which message is whose.

UPDATE: Thomas has an thoughtful rant on this.

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