Shakespeare’s quintessential villain erupts into being in this Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey production directed by Paul Mullins (on view through November 6). The cast is huge—16 actors playing 22 parts—but all depends on the sly malice and believability of the title character, a role Derek Wilson fulfills admirably.
Shakespeare’s Richard is more duplicitous than history supports, since in the Elizabethan era, theater was required to explain and justify the monarchy, but the play’s machinations seem perfectly plausible in Wilson’s hands. Fawning here, back-stabbing there, and slyly engaging the audience in his treachery.
The story describes the culmination of the War of the Roses, and it’s a familiar one, as most theater goers have seen one or more productions of this classic. In (very) short, Richard murders his way to the throne of England, but getting the crown isn’t keeping it. The play’s most famous lines come at the beginning and end, but like all Shakespeare’s plays, it is filled with juicy bits. Here’s one for this political season: “And thus I clothe my naked villainy with old odd ends stolen out of holy writ; and seem a saint, when most I play the devil.”
STNJ has provided a helpful Plantagenet family tree in the program, which, abbreviated though it is, is at first glance a stumper. I studied it before the show and had a few relationships sorted out, and at the intermission I gave it another go, putting everyone in place.
In addition to Wilson’s Richard, the many fine performances include those of the three principal women: Gretchen Hall (Queen Elizabeth, wife of Richard’s brother, King Edward IV), Carol Halstead (Margaret of Anjou, Henry VI’s “warrior queen,” who lives up to her sobriquet), and Amaia Arana (Lady Anne, widow of Margaret and Henry’s son, Edward, and later wife of Richard). In Shakespeare’s story, Richard instigated the murder of both Henry VI and Edward. For these crimes, Margaret and Anne hate him. The widowed Queen Elizabeth has reasons to both hate and fear him when her two sons “the little princes in the tower” are believed murdered at Richard’s behest.
Though lots of murder is talked about, most of it occurs off-stage. In keeping with the production’s modern dress, there is gunfire as well as swordplay. Richard III is a long play, but the energy of the cast and the direction (as well as some judicious trimming) make the story move apace.
Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey productions are hosted at Drew University in Madison, N.J. (easily reachable from NYC by train), and until October 30 you can also see there an exhibit of Shakespeare’s First Folio, on tour from the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.