Controlling the Narrative

Watching Richard III after the Kavanaugh Hearings

all photos by:  HMMM Productions

all photos by: HMMM Productions


A flourish, trumpets! Strike alarum, drums!

Let not the heavens hear these tell-tale women

Rail on the Lord’s anointed. Strike, I say!

—Richard III

The women of the upstart crow collective know what they’re saying.

If that sounds like damning with faint praise, it shouldn’t. Understanding the words, both as individual characters and as a cohesive production, is the single thing that makes a Shakespeare play watchable, and it’s the thing most often neglected. Too many shows get bogged down in finding clever gimmicks or shocks that will suddenly make Shakespeare ‘relevant’ or ‘fresh’—not because such tricks or updates are inherently ill-conceived (approaching these plays as sacred texts often results in boring theater), but because no amount of stagecraft will make these words intelligible if the people putting on the show don’t understand them. So, it seems important to begin by saying that the recent production of Richard III, a collaboration between upstart crow (a collective dedicated to performing with diverse female and non-binary casts) and Seattle Shakespeare, was totally comprehensible from start to finish. Encountering a show that knows the text this well is an exciting reminder that Shakespeare doesn’t need heavy-handed stunts to feel vibrant, accessible, and, yes, relevant.  

Claiming relevance for a 400-plus-year-old play is tricky. The cult of “the Bard” insists on worshipping Shakespeare as the universal poet, a writer whose works are so transcendent that they reveal eternal truths and speak to everyone, equally, in every time and place. Of course, this ignores everything about Shakespeare that’s specific, from its white-male-English-ness to its local references that only Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences would understand. Putting on a play like Richard III is partly an experiment in, first, telling the story that’s there and telling it well, and second, finding genuine connections to a historical text and imagining how they might be made visible. Director Rosa Joshi seemed to find this connection through asking two questions: In Richard III, whose words matter? And how does an obvious tyrant rise to power?

That last question has already received attention, so I will be brief about it here. Reviews pointed out Trump connections, although the production itself wisely didn’t lean too heavily into those comparisons—Richard didn’t wear a red tie or a toupee, thank god. There aren’t really strong parallels between the character of Richard and the current U.S. president. Sure, Richard is a selfish, brutal liar born into privilege and wealth, but he’s clever and quick, occasionally self-mocking, courageous in battle, and familiar with pain and suffering. (Not to suggest that he’s a more admirable character than he is—he also casually arranges the murder of family members and children, so he wouldn’t exactly be a preferable leader.) Rather, any connections emerge from looking at the way the characters around Richard respond to him. Stephen Greenblatt, writing for The New York Times a month before the 2016 election, argued that Richard III indicts “a nation of enablers” who, through a mix of complacency, ambition, normalizing, fear, and enjoyment (those enjoyers are us, the audience), allow a despot to attain the throne even though they already know he’s a despot.[i]  Joshi’s direction seemed to agree with Greenblatt’s take; Sarah Harlett’s Richard dominated the play, as she should, but in a production that was liberal in its line cuts, Richard’s various enablers still each got their moments to realize the depth of their miscalculations, usually just before facing deadly consequences.  

That second question—whose words matter?—is the one our DeConstruct team found ourselves drawn to, the question that’s lingered since the play closed. Here’s the short review: upstart crow collective put on an excellent Richard III, and Seattle audiences should be sure to see whatever they do next. The cast was strong, especially Harlett’s Richard, Suzanne Buchard’s Buckingham, and Mari Nelson’s Duchess of York; Porscha Shaw made Richmond more interesting than he has any right to be. (Shaw also played Lady Anne well, but I’m beginning to think it’s impossible to make that part totally work.) The production team presented a cohesive and compelling vision. The critique that follows is only partly about this production; it’s largely about the ways that this play offers opportunities to think about the voices we consider worthwhile, and whether the answers we come to are any different than they were in 16th-century England.

I) The Play

A short summary, or as short as I can make it: Richard III wraps up a series of plays about the Wars of the Roses, a decades-long conflict between the Houses of York and Lancaster, represented by white and red roses (thus the pretty name for a terrible war). The previous collaboration between upstart crow collective and Seattle Shakespeare, 2017’s Bring Down the House, condensed Shakespeare’s three Henry VI plays into two, streamlining the rivalry between the houses. By the end of Bring Down the House, the Duke of York’s eldest son sat on the throne with a son of his own, but the play promised that peace wouldn’t last; Part 2 closed with Harlett’s venomous, intriguing Richard jumping onto a table, cradling the baby and promising more blood to come.  

With an ending like that, Richard III almost had to follow. Harlett seemed too promising a Richard not to get her own play, and Richard III is in many ways both an easier and a better play than the Henry VI plays. It tells just one story, and it centers on a charismatic, dominating, and entertaining main character, rather than jumping between countries, plots, and protagonists explaining their family trees. In the beginning, Richard’s brother is still king, and his two sons, and Richard’s other brother George, Duke of Clarence, stand between Richard and the throne. Most of the play is about Richard removing these obstacles and anyone else who gets in his way. Richard kills his way to the top before the end of the play—thus, Richard must fall at the end of the play. In the final act, we meet Henry, Earl of Richmond, who defeats Richard in battle, kills him, and becomes Henry VII, founder of the Tudor dynasty.

Beyond these basic plot points, however, and in spite of its many murders and final battle scene, Richard III is not a particularly blood-soaked play when performed. Its most impressive and memorable scenes are about the power of words: who gets to say them, whose words are heard, whether and how they have meaning, consequences. Richard dominates the play because he speaks nearly a third of the lines, and he controls the play until close to the end through his ability to control its stories—his own story, and the stories of other characters. This ‘control’ isn’t quite the same thing as deceptiveness. Many characters—Elizabeth, Stanley, Anne, Rivers, Margaret, Buckingham—see him for what he is, to varying degrees. The ones who don’t recognize him as a villain are buffoons: stupid, trusting Clarence, the inept (and soon-dead) King Edward, and the foolishly self-serving Hastings, who starts the morning of his death more-or-less declaring “Gosh golly, I bet nothing bad could ever happen to me today, not with my best friend Richard around!” Characters who don’t understand Richard’s danger are meant to be the butt of the joke. But the ones who do understand still find themselves overwhelmed, enveloped in the power of Richard’s narratives. Joshi’s direction understood this, and drove home the power of narrative control in the play’s final moments, turning even the boring savior Richmond into a threatening totalitarian forcing words into the mouths of his subjects. But this element of the play also resonated in ways beyond the power of this single production.

 II) Body Horror

Before uttering the first line—“Now is the winter of our discontent,” one of those Shakespeare lines that has been plucked out of the play so often that people know it without knowing it—Harlett stood frozen and silent on a dark stage, face illuminated by a flashlight like a woman ready to tell a ghost story. Members of the ensemble stood around her, turning her head, adjusting her arms, moving her forward one step at a time, until the she started speaking and the play proper began. There was no clear explanation offered for this silent prologue, but the moment was suggestive in ways well-suited to this play. As a Tudor history play, Richard III is not interested in a fair and accurate representation of its real characters and events. By the time of its performance in the early 1590s, the last York king had already been transformed into a cultural bogeyman, thanks in no small part to a propagandist history written by Sir Thomas More (yes, that’s the martyred Saint Thomas More, author of Utopia, Man for All Seasons, and guy who only burned a handful of religious dissidents to death). More, and others, describe Richard as a tyrant whose monstrosity was visible through his disability.  

Linking morality and the body was a common Renaissance narrative; physical difference was a sign of inward evil, making bodies interpretable to viewers. The power of that story lingers more than many would care to admit; as Dr. Katherine Schapp Williams notes, “those who defended the historical Richard often did so by claiming his disability was an invention: believing Richard was innocent often meant asserting that he was not disabled, that his hunchback formation was just as much a fiction as his evil deeds.”[ii] Those who dismissed the Tudor propaganda still perpetuated its link between Richard’s physicality and his morality. When the king’s body was discovered and exhumed in 2013 and found to have scoliosis, the response from Yorkist apologists was muted, even disappointed. It didn’t fit their story.

What should we do with this legacy of Richard III as both disabled and monstrous? The real Richard is lost beyond recovery, but Shakespeare’s bloody, funny, horror story remains. While it participates in vilifying Richard, it also presents a Richard adept at telling his own stories about his body, asserting it as war-like, victimized, pious, harmless, or handsome as it suits the situation. The part has rarely been played by disabled actors, and upstart crow also chose to use a non-disabled actor to portray the vilified body of Richard III. The decision might emphasize the way Shakespeare’s Richard is more construct than reality, and Joshi and Harlett wisely steer clear of “cripping up” with false limps or hunches. But contemporary theater already offers few opportunities for disabled actors, and the part of Richard III is a star turn. Casting non-disabled actors in one of the few ‘classical theater’ canonically disabled parts continues to limit those opportunities and limits the ways that we see this play and this character. The lack of disability representation in theater (and movies, and TV) is pervasive, and this complaint isn’t specifically about upstart crow or Seattle Shakespeare so much as it is about all theater performances and Hollywood roles. Nevertheless, it needs to be raised here, not least of all because upstart crow collective is already doing more interesting and thoughtful Shakespeare than most prominent Seattle productions.

III) Cursing Women 

The voices most consistently ignored in Richard III belong to women. Every woman in this play knows exactly who Richard is, even if they don’t know everything he’s up to. Queen Elizabeth warns her kinsmen that he’s plotting against them; Lady Anne calls him a murderer and curses him and his future bride (which turns out to be a curse on herself); deposed and bereft Queen Margaret, when she’s not hurling vitriol and curses of her own against everyone on stage, prophecies doom for Richard’s allies; Richard’s own mother, the Duchess of York, despises him and curses him. The responses of the men around them are familiar: condescension, dismissal, and attempts to silence.

Our DeConstruct team watched this production three days after Dr. Christine Blasey-Ford testified before the Senate, describing her experience of assault; three days after Brett Kavanaugh raged against those accusations. We watched it in the midst of a loud, overwhelming media storm as senators, the president, and media supporters worked to drown out the narrative of violence against women. In the days between our team seeing the play and meeting to talk about it, Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court. In the days since that meeting, the accusations of Dr. Ford, Debbie Ramirez, and Julie Swetnick have left the news. But the rage stayed, along with the sickening feeling that we’ve seen all this before, and we’ll see it again. In the lead-up to Dr. Ford’s testimony, it was almost impossible not to have double-vision of Anita Hill. Days later, watching Richard order his soldiers to overpower the sound of women’s voices with drums, affronted that they would dare confront him and name his crimes, it was equally impossible not to see Dr. Ford and Anita Hill again. upstart crow couldn’t have predicted these exact events, but that almost makes the point even clearer: when Elizabeth’s male family members fail to look at her as she voices her fears about Richard, when Lady Anne stands confused and horrified as Richard transforms her curses into consent, and when Elizabeth and the Duchess of York try to shout the names of Richard’s victims above the drums, it’s a reminder that no one needed to predict Dr. Ford’s testimony to know that this would be timely. That circularity of pain and outrage is clear in Richard III, where time doesn’t always seem quite linear. Queen Margaret, the deposed and banished Lancastrian queen who haunts the stage, refusing to let the past be forgotten, points this out to the mourning Queen Elizabeth: “Tell your woes again by viewing mine. / I had an Edward, till a Richard killed him; / I had a husband, till a Richard killed him. / Thou hadst an Edward, till a Richard killed him. / Thou hadst a Richard, till a Richard killed him” (4.4.39-43).

But Richard III also offers a revenge fantasy, of sorts, for wronged women, and this is a place where the production only partly succeeded. There are no resurrections of lost children or husbands, no miraculous reversals of fate, and, for Lady Anne, no escape from a wretched marriage to the man who killed her first husband, and no escape from her own eventual murder by that man. There’s also no warm pretense that women can all unite—Margaret never sees past her own suffering to sympathize with anyone else, although Anne, Elizabeth, and the Duchess do manage to pity one another. The fantasy comes in this: women’s curses matter. It doesn’t matter how often they’re ignored or drowned out; it doesn’t matter if the men in the play listen or not. Their words are the ones that ultimately control the play.

The production understood that. Although everyone initially tries to laugh off Margaret’s curses, they all acknowledge when those curses are fulfilled. The Duchess of York’s curses for Richard seem to horrify him. However, the decision to give these curses instant and clear supernatural power had mixed results. Characters appeared ‘caught’ by the curses, freezing in place and physically controlled for as long as the cursing women speak. It’s easy to see the reasoning behind the decision, but the effect was one of not quite trusting the words, and made the initial dismissive responses to Margaret’s curse scene confusing. These lines aren’t quite hexes and aren’t quite prophecies; their power is stranger than either, an embrace of rage and bitterness that rejects and counters the force of Richard’s words.

Performing the curses like witchcraft also misses that curses aren’t the only example of women speaking with power. Near the end of the play, after Richard has reached the height of his power and murdered Anne, he asks the dowager Queen Elizabeth how he might woo her daughter, his niece. The scene mirrors his wooing scene with Anne: he counters every accusation, trying to assert his version of events over hers, playing the lover and vying for rhetorical dominance. In his first wooing scene, it works; Anne begins by spitting charges of murder at him, but quickly shifts to responding to Richard, repeating him, and silence. Richard attempts to replicate his winning stories in the second wooing scene, but he never wrests verbal control from Elizabeth. She worries that she’s no good at cursing, but she doesn’t need to be; her power here is in dialogue. She rejects Richard’s reasoning, forces him to respond to her questions, interrupts him, and successfully lies to him, setting up his defeat by Richmond. It’s the first and only time in the play that Richard is so thoroughly bested, and though he doesn’t quite realize it, the audience should. The fact that he misses it and continues to dismiss her as a changeable and shallow woman is important. Unfortunately, the force of this exchange did not come across. As the only moment where female grief and anger carries political power, not just existential power, it’s a moment we could have used.

In spite of the occasional missed opportunity, however, this production of Richard III did what the best productions of Shakespeare can do: raised the right questions in the right moment. Let’s hope that upstart crow’s influence on Seattle’s Shakespeare scene continues to grow, and not just through more collaborations with the collective—their smart engagement with the text and dedication to bringing new perspectives to old texts should serve as an example to northwest theater.

[i] Stephen Greenblatt, “Shakespeare Explains the 2016 Election,” The New York Times (8 Oct. 2016).

[ii] Katherine Schapp Williams, “Richard III and the Staging of Disability,” Discovering Literature: Shakespeare & Renaissance, The British Library (15 March 2016).