Propeller Theatre Company production at the Huntington Theatre in Boston. The Brit-based Propeller is, in at least one sense, genuine Shakespeare: as in the Bard’s time, all roles are played by men. In the case of Richard III, this left me with the strong impression that violence is perpetrated by men on themselves, even when women are the target.We blame Eve and the serpent for everything that went wrong originally, but nowadays men should shoulder the blame—and do feel the pain.
Richard III was the last Plantagenet king, who died in battle in 1485 famously offering his kingdom for a horse. Apparently he did not have a hunchback. That was a conceit of Shakespeare, who wrote for a Tudor audience for whom the Plantagenets were the finally vanquished foe. I suppose the Tudors must have felt a bit like Red Sox fans after coming back from a 3-0 deficit against the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS and going on to win their first World Series in 86 years. Richard III, then, is a bit like a morality play about the end of the Yankee dynasty with a focus on Roger Clemens and ’roid rage. (Note to baseball illiterates: Clemens was a Red Sox pitcher who turned coat, going over to the Yankees and leading them to a string of championships. Since retirement he has been publicly pilloried for using steroids.)
The Propeller company’s trailer will give you a taste of their production of Richard III.
In cold-blooded succession, Richard kills Edward, Prince of Wales, then woos and wins his widow, Lady Anne. He imprisons and murders his own brother, George, Duke of Clarence. Ditto Lord Rivers, brother of an earlier Queen Elizabeth. When King Edward, Richard’s brother, dies, Richard becomes “Lord Protector” of his son, the young prince. Heh-heh. Allied with the Duke of Buckingham, Richard jails the prince and his younger brother in the Tower of London, then has them killed. When Buckingham no longer serves Richard’s purposes, he is disemboweled—a dramatic bit of Grand Guignol in which Buckingham’s sausage-like innards are paraded around the stage not once but twice. Did I mention that Richard also kills Lady Anne, his wife?
The women characters are portrayed by men without the flouncy mannerisms of drag queens. No make-up or false eyelashes are used, no wigs in most cases. The men-as-women wear long black dresses, widow’s weeds, and sometimes veils, and they play their parts with dignity in normally registered male voices. This creates a powerful effect, stripping the play of what we would be quick to call sexual politics. Richard is not a wife-abuser. He is an abuser of humanity, not least his own.
For all the ultraviolence of the play and particularly this production (there is a splatter scene involving an anachronistic chainsaw that is reminiscent of Pulp Fiction) the most powerful images in the Propeller production are non-violent.
The first is a sort of chorus that appears silently before the play and wanders throughout, chanting Latin liturgical music (England was still Catholic then), moving sets, and performing much of Richard’s dirty work. This chorus is dressed in long white trench coats and wears white masks, a weirdly depersonalizing effect. Members of the chorus walk onto the stage five or ten minutes before the first curtain and stare out, black-eyed, into the audience. Their eerie presence poses a question, to which the play finally gives words: What is this violent thing called our humanity?
The other affecting image is that of the Princes in the Tower, the two boy heirs rubbed out by Richard’s henchmen. In the Propeller production they are played by puppet children wielded and voiced by masked chorus members, like Bunraku figures. The puppet princes are artfully crafted with expressions of innocent wonder, and the puppeteers move the boys’ little heads about, paying puzzled attention to the machinations of Richard and the other adults. Presented this way, the boy children are terribly moving witnesses, and sad victims, of the violence of their fathers.