Production of Richard III re-envisioned into contemporary world

Friday, November 8, 2013

From The Imprint preview:
"Richard III: No hump, twice the technology, still a dick"

Anne in Richard 3 with mobile phones recording her

The Department of Drama and Speech Communications at UW presents Richard III, William Shakespeare’s tale of a tyrant’s rise to power at all costs. Directed by Prof. Jennifer Roberts-Smith and starring Ryan Basset as King Richard III, the play is reinterpreted into our contemporary era of HD security cameras and cell phones. The play runs Nov. 13–16 at 8 p.m. in the Theatre of the Arts. Admission is $13 for students and $17 for the general public. I interviewed Roberts-Smith and Basset on the upcoming performance.Q: Richard III is a long play. In this performance, a four-hour play is condensed into 75 minutes. This production also alters the setting into a contemporary one. What aspects of Richard III make it into this version of the play?

Roberts-Smith: The core of Shakespeare’s play is the question “who will stand up to the tyrant?” So we begin the play with the character Richard telling the audience in direct address that he’s going to be a terrible villain. And then [what] we watch in every major scene after that … involves some character or another, who should stand up to him and oppose him, not oppose him … To me, it is that movement: the movement from the possibility of opposition, to the possibility of opposition, that to me is the play. 

Basset: I would definitely agree with that. But looking from Richard’s perspective … it’s all fun and games to getting the crown. When he puts people in positions where they should oppose him and they don’t, it just makes it even more fun. Each [person] is harder than the next to beat.

QOn the flip side, can you hint at what has been changed?
Roberts-Smith: Almost everything [laughs]. We speak almost only in Shakespeare’s words, but there are cases where we’ve used text from other adaptations. There is a very famous 18th century adaptation by a man named Colley Ciber — we’ve borrowed some of [his] lines. There are some cases where we have altered text ourselves — but mostly for the sake of clarity, mostly because we’ve cut so much and taken it out of historical context that we don’t want our audience to get lost. 

Q: Are the characters given new modern positions of power?

Roberts-Smith: No. So we haven’t transposed in the literal way, but we have given them clothing that is contemporary … and the context of communicating … through electronic media. So everybody has a phone. There’s an iPad, a couple of laptops and there are high-definition [security] cameras with a live feed from the stage. We’ve cut some characters; probably the most significant one is Queen Margret, the crazy old queen.  And the reason for that is, that whole thread about prophecy in the play is about destiny, it’s about characters having predetermined outcomes to their lives, which in terms of what our focus was, was not what I was interested in. I was most interested in when characters do have control over their lives, not when they don’t.

Q: The performance is a historical play using contemporary clothes and keeping the same lines. How do you avoid them clashing?

Basset: Because Shakespeare is so widely performed, it’s been interpreted over and over again … I think the most famous one people would know is Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet film … where he sets it in Venice Beach, California … with surfer dudes. Shakespeare’s texts, for a lack of a better word, they’re immortal. They speak to something at every point of time — whether it’s 16th century or 21st century … You can always make a connection, no matter what time you’re in. It resonated 500 years ago when Shakespeare wrote it, it is going to resonate 500 years from now. 

Roberts-Smith: Ryan’s given the argument of the universality of Shakespeare’s works and I would say to add to that … which is, we are completely fascinated by history and by things that are different from ourselves — by who we were in the past that’s different than who we are now. We tell historical stories as a way of understanding who we are now … What is it about this historical story that we need to keep telling even though it’s distant from us? In some ways, what you get on stage when you have the historical language and the modern context is you’ve got the past and the present together in the same space. And you can think about that. What is it about the past that we still need to talk about in the present? In what ways is the past present for us now? In all parts of our lives.

Q: Ryan, you play Richard III. I think the part that makes him terrifying is that at first the audience is fooled into believing he is displaying vulnerability in the beginning soliloquies. How do you perform a likeable tyrant?

Basset: In his opening soliloquy, I don’t really think he shows vulnerability … He opens up the soliloquy telling the people about the state of the world now that the civil war has ended. His brother [Edward] is the king and everything is hunky-dory … Without skipping a beat, he goes on to show how this is bad … The big line is: ‘And now, instead of mounting barbed steeds/To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,/He capers nimbly in a lady’s chamber/To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.’ … Then gets to talk about himself, how he is seen by the great king and his family, that’s where historically the deformity comes in — our production does not have a physical deformity. 

Q: I think it’s archaic to associate a deformity with evil.

Basset: I think honestly, a deformed mind is scarier.

Roberts-Smith: One of the questions Shakespeare is asking in the play is how can we tell what the inside of a person is like, right? And Richard’s strategy is to talk about the outside of him and how it’s a clue to the inside of him. But in doing that, in saying: “Look at me, I’m ugly and evil,” he makes us not believe that.   

Q: I am super excited to watch the seduction of Lady Anne. How do you get into character specifically for this scene? How do you convince yourself that you are the slickest mofo? How do you convince yourself to show the audience that Lady Anne’s reaction is legitimate?

Basset: He starts out with this one thing that is by all accounts impossible. He interrupts Lady Anne when she is mourning her husband and [her husband’s] father, the past king, and woos her. The plan is, he’s going to do this now and he’s going to succeed — and that’s the fun of it, it’s the impossibility of it ... For me … what keeps him going is that it is impossible and I have to make it happen because it is impossible.

Q: What is the concept of the set?

Roberts-Smith: The central metaphor of the set is Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon [a circular prison design system with watchtowers stationed in the centre] … The set is designed … to create images that involve people watching one another. It’s a general rule, Richard’s in the centre and the world is around him. We also talked about how and where to put a projection screen … to use the live feeds from our cameras that are on stage.