After hearing great things about the Druid Shakespeare project which played in the tiny Mick Lally Theatre in 2015 where they tackled several of the History plays and which I sadly missed, I was looking forward to RICHARD 3 which played in the Town Hall Theatre Galway for a week before going to the Dublin Theatre Festival. Everyone I asked who saw the play earlier in the week praised Aaron Monaghan’s performance but were less complimentary about other performances and other aspects of the production.
Aaron Monaghan is a very talented actor and made a cracking start as Richard but as the production progressed he seemed to get lost in what seemed to me a very unfocussed production in both style and direction. (With my voice teacher’s hat on, and on the evidence of last night’s show, he also needs to do some serious voice work on the later scenes). In the end though, a talented actor cannot stand alone even in a huge role and needs the full focus and guided support of the other performers. Too often I felt many of the smaller roles were not inhabited either vocally or physically and they looked lost. Consequently, there seemed no world created by the actors in which the play could live.
Many people might think that it is the set, lights, music and costume which provide this sense of a world, this atmosphere, but these elements only partly contribute to it. In any case we were not helped by the design in this respect and nor were the actors. In a forbidding industrial set, the actors inhabited the space in sparkly colourful ‘medievally’ costumes. This contrast between set and costume went completely over my head and did not seem to be embraced by the actors.
In truth though, it is the actors and director who create a strong sense of the world, by the atmosphere they create. (Michael Chekhov calls atmosphere, “the oxygen of the performance”). Too often the scenes at court particularly gave no sense of the viciousness, backstabbing and jockeying for position which is there in the play from the start. Interestingly the play has the feel of a Jacobean play, sharply juxtaposing comedy with horror and tragedy, even though it is a fairly early work by Shakespeare. This Jacobean sense was well served by some good editing.
Without atmosphere the actors are like fish in a goldfish bowl with no water. And that was the overall feeling it gave me. Every so often, through many of Richard’s early soliloquies, in the scene where Clarence is murdered and at least the first of the subsequent executions, the atmosphere would pour in and I felt like I was watching something with some dynamism. The performance of Marty Rea was in large part responsible for this. His emotional power and sense of inhabiting the whole of his character is palpable.
The lack of atmosphere and passion in the later scenes with the struggling, angry and grieving women was extremely disappointing. Too often I was playing out the scene in my imagination in response to the text and thinking ‘wow’ rather than watching the performers perform. Why was this? There simply was not enough emotional and vocal energy in those scenes which should tear me apart as I watch them. Are we not seeing enough of horror on the news to get some sense of what women are going through right now, trying to ‘speak to power’? These scenes had enormous potential to make these connections but I did not feel they were there.
In general, the characters did not go on a sufficient journey within scenes nor through the whole play. It is very tempting to believe that the energy of this play is Richard’s villainy but it is also about the culpability of those who choose to serve him and those who abandon him – a situation mirrored particularly in Macbeth as all the lords, one by one, change sides and leave Macbeth to his fate.
In terms of a character ‘journey’ let’s consider act 4 sc 4; the scene where the three devastated women meet. Queen Margaret, when asked to teach them to curse, says:
“Compare dead happiness with living woe.
Think that thy babes were sweeter than they were,
And he that slew them fouler than he is.”
She leaves and the two wronged women then encounter Richard on his way to Bosworth. Richard has to deal with his mother’s curses. Indeed, her emotional journey seems to be that she learns to curse effectively, to channel her rage. When she leaves, he tries to get Queen Elizabeth to collude in getting her own daughter to marry him. The scene with Queen Elizabeth, who has had both of her other children murdered by Richard already, is very challenging as she tries to express her rage and save her child and herself. In my opinion, Richard is beginning to fail once his mother’s curses have been delivered, perhaps even earlier when he is abandoned by Buckingham. Without this real diminishing of his power, how can he then be visited by ghosts and delude himself into saying he was not a murderer?
Finally, I would have to say that, whilst I understand the acoustics of the Town Hall Theatre are tricky, having worked there myself, there were too many times when people did not root their breath sufficiently. Without breath, all the passion and intensity for the character will not radiate into the space. Without rooted breath you may also harm your voice. A voice coach would have been far more use than a movement director in my opinion. On that note, there was some very embarrassing “ensemble” work and ‘fighting’ which I would have been ashamed to see in a youth theatre, never mind a heavily funded project going to the Dublin Theatre Festival.
Ultimately, as a friend of mine remarked, the real star of the evening was the writer. Whilst I still enjoyed the evening I was only occasionally moved. I was baffled as the obligatory standing ovation took place, and I and my friends stared open-mouthed at a lot of backs.
Max you argue that the women slowly and passionately should erode Richard’s confidence and contribute to an almost psychological crisis in the pre battle tent scene at the end of the play: I agree they should. The final scenes are important to the climax of the play but sadly they lose way. Part of this failure is the cutting of the ghosts in this scene. The ghosts summarise his past evils but here only the Princes in the Tower appear. What is worse they sing a song not in the original text of the play. Songs in Shakespeare and music generally are used to create an atmosphere of harmony and peace. An appropriate example here is the scene in Julius Ceasar before the final battle at Philippi, a play I directed for a UK tour in 1990 (Act 4 Scene 3 line 250 onwards; it is worth a look at if you like Shakespeare). The scene is a similar pre battle scene except that Brutus is basically a good man who nevertheless has murdered the head of the state. He is haunted by bad conscience and the ghost of Ceasar appears. But here we do have music and a song from the servant boy Lucius. (whose name means “light”). Perhaps this scene was in the mind of the Druid dramaturg? But the Richard situation and the atmosphere is totally different. The scene is very long and perhaps cuts seemed appropriate but music and song were totally inappropriate. The second reason for the final loss of direction is the final speech of the new King which comes over as nervous and ineffectual (whether by design or accident I don’t know) and is followed by his image of physical deformity suggesting an ongoing state of corruption with nothing resolved. This might be an acceptable interpretation, even a welcome Irish perspective, in a production so conventionally English in its conservatism (particularly after the 2015 project) but the new king does repair the rift of the usurpers in the royal line and usher in the House of Tudor which brings on the English Dramatic Renaissance of which Shakespeare is its flower!