I got to see Pigeon Creek Shakespeare’s Richard III last night. If you live in West Michigan and haven’t checked out Pigeon Creek (https://www.pcshakespeare.com), you absolutely should. When I moved back from Boston three years ago, I made a point of checking out local theater groups, and happily I stumbled into Dog Story Theater for their performance of Richard Sheridan’s School for Scandal. I’ve been going to as many of their shows as I can since then.
I’m more of a comedy guy when it comes to Shakespeare, I’ve never read Richard III, and the only version I’ve seen is the 1995 film with Ian McKellen, which is set in 1930s Britain with McKellen playing a fascist-sympathizing Richard—not the most faithful adaptation ever. Still, it prepared me for the blood bath that is the play’s plot, as Richard murders his way through several rival Lancasters, his brother, two nephews, and his wife. In classic Shakespearean style, there are some comedic moments provided by bumbling assassins as well as witty exchanges of furious wordplay, but the momentum of the play is almost wholly negative as the royal family fractures, alliances are betrayed, and the country dissolves into civil war.
Richard is so unlikeable that, beyond the fascinating horror (in its classic Romantic sense) of his complete disregard for anyone else’s well-being, I found myself engaging more with the scenes where he is absent, or less central. For example, when Queen Margaret, the widowed wife of the deposed Lancaster king, strides onto the set and calls down curses on the Yorkist nobles (Richard, Elizabeth, Buckingham), she brings an emotional strength that Richard’s unfeeling power grab doesn’t have for me. Margaret’s anguish and anger are palpable as she goes from screaming imprecations to slinking up behind Richard and whispering his downfall in his ear.
My favorite scene, though, was between Margaret, Elizabeth, and the Duchess of York (Richard’s mother). Ostensibly on different sides of the Wars of the Roses, the three queens share the grief of having lost their husbands and sons to war and treason, as they share their fear of what Richard has done to the country and plans to do. (Yes, it doesn’t exactly pass the Bechdel test . . .) As a villain who creates problems for the other characters to grapple with, Richard is a wonderfully successful character, even if he isn’t complex and does really have a growth arc. Rather, it’s characters like the queens who create empathy with the audience and develop over the course of the play (such as Margaret and the Duchess of York, who go from opposition to tenuous connection).
As a speculative fiction writer, I also loved the supernatural element of all the ghosts of Richard’s victims appearing to curse him before the Battle of Bosworth Field. Although the final action of the play is Richard’s death during the battle, the ghostly curses, I would argue, provide the emotional climax/payoff, as they are the last words between Richard and many of the major characters. The troupe added a lovely touch of blocking, as each of the dead characters had a heraldic silk hanging as part of the backdrop, and they each laid their herald on Richard as they cursed him.
I’m pretty sure Richard III will never rank as one of my favorite Shakespeare plays. But it was an excellent production, and I’m already looking forward to Pigeon Creek’s summer show, Romeo and Juliet.