Rylance’s Richard

Richard III, The Globe, 28 July 2012

Mark Rylance’s Richard was a very special creation. Rather than a nascent tyrant, a bubbling cauldron of frustration hemmed in by physical deformity, this Richard was overwhelmingly weak, with a vague passivity that made him seem at times almost withdrawn.

So when he began his campaign of politic conquest, it was characterised by a sad, depressed cruelty. Only the rarest of outbursts hinted at the fire, not of bloody ambition, but of some deep-seated unhappiness. His was an arctic winter of discontent that had frozen both his body and spirit.

He appeared for his opening soliloquy with flowers in his hat band, a victorious wreath that he offered to a groundling singled out as a “wanton ambling nymph”. Where one would expect snarls and a viperish grin, he merely gave an absent smile.

Richard’s weakness was comedic, which made it easier to derive humour from his outrageous audacity. His deadpan contradictions got lots of laughs.

But playing Richard that way could only be made to work if everyone else in the play was weaker than him.

Therefore his fiercest opponent, Margaret, was cut entirely. The excision of this key character was a vital step, because Rylance’s Richard could only have crumpled under the weight of her withering disdain.

Without Margaret’s galvanising effect on the other female characters, the power of the women in the play generally was also diminished. Anne and Elizabeth were portrayed by Johnny Flynn and Samuel Barnett respectively as weak and vacillating. Their characterisations were less effectual than most contemporary actresses would have made them. James Garnon’s Duchess of York was almost comic as she hunched over and floated about the stage, her feet invisible beneath her wide dress.

Even when Anne was angry, her ire failed to rouse a commensurate response. When she spat at Richard to rebuff his advances in 1.2, his reaction to this assault came after a delay, as if he were only marginally engaged in what was happening around him.

The male characters were not much more effective. The sickly Edward IV (Colin Hurley) was pale as a sheet and wheezed like a dying man after his every line.

Edward seemed at peace after having reconciled his family. But when he heard of Clarence’s (Liam Brennan) death and received a request for pardon from Dorset (Ben Thompson), he became troubled at his double standards over “poor Clarence” whom he had sentenced to death. This emotional pain helped to finish him off.

Buckingham (Roger Lloyd Pack) was the only personality to prove a match for Richard. As a result, in the balcony scene where Richard refused the crown, he looked more like Richard’s carer than this friend.

The weak or absent women and Richard’s faded strength meant that the production was characterised by a low level of energy, which was punctured on only two occasions by Richard’s outbursts.

After Richard’s re-entry in 3.4 he sat at the end of a table nearest the audience. Continuously nursing his withered hand rather than making eye contact with anyone else, he asked what fate should befall the traitors who had used witchcraft against him.

Hastings’ (Paul Chahidi) comment “If they have done this thing, my gracious lord” was the detonator that sparked Richard’s explosive “If?!” Given his previous quietness and reticence, this outburst was all the more forceful.

Richard returned to his former subdued self until Buckingham demanded the earldom promised to him (4.2). The king’s irritation erupted into another fiery explosion of temper, reminding Buckingham that he was “not in the giving vein today.”

If Richard was harbouring a seething discontent within him, it was most frequently expressed in casual low-key cruelty.

After being crowned, Richard sat and held his wife’s hand as he explained why he had to have her killed. She shed tears which Richard himself wiped off and smeared into his own eyes saying “Tear-falling pity dwells not in this eye”. He took the ring from Anne’s hand and gave it to Tyrrell (Paul Chahidi again) as the token he would need to gain access to murder the princes.

All of this heartless behaviour came from a man who was still outwardly quiet and strangely unassuming.

The only other notable feature of Richard’s character to be brought out by the production was his extreme vulnerability to expressions of real love. At the end of their long scene together (4.4) Elizabeth pretended to assent to Richard’s plan to marry her daughter. She sealed the agreement with a passionate kiss that caused Richard to collapse.

This strange turn of events could be explained as Richard being overcome by the power of a spirited woman’s freely offered affection, in contrast with the compelled love and obedience he was accustomed to receiving from those he manipulated. Surrounded by a cocoon of extorted love, the merest touch of the real thing was more than he could bear.

Richard declined with clearly signposted indications of mental frailty. He began to make mistakes, such as calling for Catesby (Peter Hamilton Dyer) when he was standing right beside him, and then not instructing him with his errand. When Richard said “My mind is changed” it implied decay and change for the worse.

On Bosworth Field he commented on his missing “alacrity of spirit” (5.3). He soon fell asleep in his chair at the start of the dream sequence.

Buckingham, Clarence, the princes, Hastings and Anne appeared, their faces painted white and framed by all-encompassing white sheets knotted over their heads. They spoke their curses from the tiring house doorway.

This prepared the way for the final battle between Richmond (James Garnon again) and Richard, who in a nice touch had his withered hand encased in armour but wore no gauntlet on his good hand.

As they battled with swords, Richard temporarily gained an advantage over his rival.

But then his victims, who had that night haunted his dreams, appeared once again as waking visions. With no ghostly trappings, the dead walked the stage as they did in life, re-enacting their interactions with Richard.

The princes with played with daggers and Hastings bowed to him. Finally, Richard caught sight of Anne and knelt to offer her his sword, an echo of their previous encounter in which he had taunted her with her lack of willingness to kill him.

The fatal sword was then taken by Richmond who stuck it into Richard’s back: game over.

In the light of Richard’s mental decline and their lack of spooky attire, these final visions were most likely delusions drawn from memory rather than yet another ghostly visitation.

Conclusions

For all its quirks, the production achieved a high degree of internal consistency. The ending was satisfying because it summarised the entire trajectory of Richard’s character. He had become a highly-driven monster through his inability to deal with past traumas. His ultimate defeat was brought about, not by a stronger opponent, but by a haunting vision from this same past. He literally and metaphorically handed victory to Richmond.

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