Monday, December 26, 2016

The Hollow Crown -- Richard III

The defects in the BBC's ornate production of Richard III are mostly intrinsic to Shakespeare's play.  Richard III woos Elizabeth over the grave her husband, Henry VI,a king murdered by the villainous protagonist.  In coup de theatre, Richard persuades Elizabeth to marry him, an extraordinary peripateia, that requires additional on-stage development.  But after accomplishing this feat, Shakespeare drops Elizabeth from the play and she reappears only intermittently throughout the rest of the lengthy drama.  Later, Shakespeare reprises the scene between Richard and the mourning queen -- this time, he's on the road to the climactic battle.  Once again, Richard seduces a mourning noble-woman, persuading her to offer her daughter to him in marriage -- again, it's an effective, witty, and terrifying scene.  But there's no follow-up.  Richard is on his way to be slaughtered at Bosworth and this dialogue, like the earlier scene between him and the mourning queen exists primarily for Shakespeare to show off his extraordinary talents as a dramaturge.  Late in the play, Shakespeare, who now is writing a tragedy and not a more objective history, demonstrates Richard's deterioration, his decay into paranoia and madness -- on the night before the final battle, Richard is visited by each of his victims, a lengthy procession of ghosts, and a scene that slows the action to a complete halt.  The problem with the scene is that we don't have any evidence that Richard could possibly be affrighted by mere specters.  Indeed, from his actions previously presented, we might expect that Richard's spirits would be considerably raised by the appearance of the ghosts of those that he hurled from this mortal coil.  It's obvious that Richard III like Falstaff is too big for the play and too immense for the rather conventional morality with which the tragedy must end.  (That's why Benedict Cumberbatch's twitches and finger-tapping as Richard III progresses, like something out of The Caine Mutiny, ring false and are merely annoying.) And what is implausible in the play is equally implausible when staged for film by the BBC -- in fact, the movie, I think, slightly improves on Shakespeare by embedding the ghostly apparitions within Margaret of Anjou's curse:  we can imagine Richard III laughing at the ghosts of his victims, but Margaret's curse, with its supernatural elements, is sufficiently terrifying that we can guess that it might be effective against the monstrous protagonist. 

The BBC production of Richard III, clearly a prestige project, was shown on Christmas night 2016 as a kind of prequel to the new season of Sherlock (starring, of course, Benedict Cumberbatch) and, in fact, as a holiday gift to the legion of Cumberbatch fans, (many of them female), an unwholesome and sadistic present under the Christmas tree.  As the villain of the piece, Cumberbatch is certainly impressive and handsomely evil.  He uses his deep baritone voice as an instrument and his reading of the poetry is highly intelligent and moving.  He's not as witty, I think, as Lawrence Olivier, in the part, although from time-to-time he plays straight to the camera, sometimes, shrugging his shoulders or slightly winking to keep us in on the joke with him.  The problem with the production in my view is that it "opens up" the action into a realistic sphere that is, somewhat, incommensurate with the theatrical merits of the play.  Richard III is repeatedly called a "bottled spider" and there should be something coiled, tensed, an energy like a cobra about to strike in his performance.  Richard is in most of the scenes and he talks directly to the audience as their intimate.  For the play to work, we need to be "bottled up" with the monstrous Richard.  Theater is claustrophobic -- we're  trapped in the same room with the actors and can't escape.  I think Richard III is a fundamentally closed, impacted, involutional play -- it works best, I think, if we feel ourselves trapped to some degree, locked in the Tower of London with poor Clarence or the child-princes.  But a big scale TV production, shot on the location of Westminster Abbey and the Tower of London, cuts against any sense of claustrophobia -- opening up this play is not a good strategy.  Rather, I think, the inherently theatrical aspect of Richard's presentation requires that the play be staged in way that forces us into intimacy with Richard and that brings him within arm's length -- we need to be able to smell the rank breath of the beast. 

Notwithstanding these reservations, there are many things to admire in the BBC production.  Cumberbatch plays Richard III as a man-made monster, someone whose cruelty has been enforced upon him by reactions to his deformity.  This rationalizes Richard III and allows the audience to empathize with him to a certain degree.  (This is alien to Shakespeare, I think, but a necessary rethinking of the play in accord with modern ideas about handicapped people and disability.)  As the action moves toward the final battle, the women who have suffered under Richard's reign of terror come to the forefront.  This is true to Shakespeare but very effective in this film.  After all, it is the women alone who the true witnesses to Richard's savagery -- all the men have been killed, more or less.  At the climax of the film, just before the last battle, Richard is confronted by three women, including the horrific Margaret of Anjou who plays the role of an avenging fury in this film.  (She causes his death on the battlefield, a brilliant stroke in this series since she is the one character who plays through all parts of the chronicle and, since, we have seen her as a woman, clad in armor, smiting her foes amidst the shock of arms.)  The women have had their fathers, brothers, husbands, and children killed by Richard and they form a tragic chorus to condemn him.  This is very powerful.  Furthermore, the film's final shot shows the sole survivor of the battle as Margaret of Anjou, a timeless witch and harridan -- the camera jets up above her and we see that she is surrounded by corpses, but the last figure standing.  The camera continues to rise and we see an impossibly vast sea of dead bodies surrounding this figure of nemesis -- that's not how the Bosworth field looked, we think, there's something wrong, and, then, we grasp that the shot is purely metaphoric.  The sea of dead men represents all the casualties in the internecine wars of the Roses, a vast harvest of slaughter, in which a single woman somehow stands yet alive and looking to heaven to provide testimony as to what she has endured. 

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