Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Rewritten Richard

Brian McEleny cries his false heart out in Richard III.

The Boston critics raved over Trinity Rep's Richard III (which closed last weekend), so I schlepped down to Providence to see what all the fuss was about. I returned slightly nonplussed. I'm a fan of Trinity - because of its longevity, rapport with its audience, and general air of humanity - but I try not to let that prevailing attitude seep into my assessments of individual productions. Other Hub critics, I think, are not so persnickety - at least it was hard to see what so many saw in this Richard.

Director Kevin Moriarty, many pointed out, had aggressively cut and shaped the text - most notably he opened the show with a preamble of scenes from Henry VI, Part III in a kind of "Last Week on Wars of the Roses" montage. So far, I supposed, so good - although I didn't really buy that these snippets made the action of Richard any clearer. I grew disturbed, however, when lines from the Duke of Gloucester's famous soliloquy from Henry cropped up in the more-famous opening speech of Richard - which then capped with the Moriarty-penned line, "The plot begins!"

Uh-huh. And my indulgence ended. Where, exactly, does one say "hold, enough"? Where does "cutting and shaping" turn into "rewriting"? I think Moriarty's Richard III was right on that line - no, sorry, it was over that line. Don't get me wrong - Richard III is ripe for cuts - it's perhaps the longest of Shakespeare's plays (depending on how you configure Hamlet), with one of the Bard's most rambling "plots," based on personages who are neither easy to distinguish nor rendered with historical accuracy. A critic expects, with every production, a new "edition" of Richard.

But said critic shouldn't expect the wholesale butchery done at Trinity, in which director Moriarty took roughly the same attitude toward Shakespeare's characters that Richard took toward human life. Not that Moriarty only cut - he also invented whole scenes (in this version, Richard offs Lady Anne with his own hands, and a prince gets clubbed into oblivion), put famous lines into different characters' mouths (the Duchess of York refers to her own womb as "a kennel"!), and sometimes plunked characters at will into scenes where Will would never have put them.

Even this much tampering, of course, isn't necessarily wrong, if it works (Trevor Nunn, for example, pulled Twelfth Night apart and re-assembled it in his film version, which is often brilliant). But at Trinity, Moriarty's monster never really came to life. And it was obvious why - perversely, he'd cut most of the best stuff in the play. Gone (as in nowhere to be found, ixnay, poof!) were Mad Margaret and her curses, Clarence's debate with his killers, the Bishop of Ely's strawberries, the cool ruthlessness of the murderous Tyrrel, the little prince taunting Richard, the ghosts of Bosworth blessing Richmond - basically all the highlights (some purple, others blacker than black) you look forward to in the play.

As for the motive behind this madness, Moriarty was on record saying that "only Shakespeare scholars" would miss these details, and that his cuts were required by modern attention spans (the production clocked in at just over 2 1/2 hours - that's including fifteen minutes from Henry VI). To which I say, "Bullshit." The cuts and rewrites were clearly artistic decisions, designed to trim away both the motivation as well as the melodrama from Richard (he's lost his hump in this version, and his limp is from a war wound, so sayonara any psychosexual envy) in what played as an attempt to model the play as a vision of bureaucracy gone bonkers. The set looked like a bombed-out pavilion from Zaha Hadid (with one arm of Louise Bourgeois's Spider apparently having crawled over from the ICA), thus hinting at a fun "Murder at MOMA" interpretation, but instead Moriarty seemed to be half-heartedly offering half an allegory to the Bush administration. This, of course, is rather a tired trope, and shrinks Dick Crookback to the puny dimensions of Dick Cheney; what's more, Moriarty seemed to lack the courage of his convictions - I hoped in vain for Clarence to be waterboarded rather than drowned in malmsey, but for reasons unknown, he was garroted instead.

One soon forgot the particulars of each murder, however, as the body count mounted. Moriarty and his Richard all but dashed from one execution to the next - and did anyone but the director care who these people were? I've seen the show many times, and even designed the set for one production, but I've never been able to keep all these heads straight before they're lopped off, and I don't see why I should. What's important is to capture the rising sense of the charnel-house the state has become - which despite all the bloodletting, Moriarty utterly failed to do. At any rate, the sheer speed of the killings made nonsense of the opening gambit from Henry VI - why set up the cast of characters if you're going to mow them down so quickly? Indeed, the actors only barely individualized each victim as they rushed hither and yon (and as usual for Trinity, few had the vocal resources to project appropriately in the large upstairs theatre).

To be fair, Phyllis Kay made an interestingly mature and rueful Queen Elizabeth - her scenes with McEleney's Richard (at left) proved far more powerful than Lady Anne's. And McEleney himself, though lacking the killer charisma to make his rise to power credible, brought a compelling force to the sudden self-awareness that comes with the crown once it's on his head. But this was perhaps a case of too little, too late, particularly given the flat work done by much of the cast - who no doubt were often distracted, to be honest, by having to run around shooting cap guns at each other. Given that they were trapped in a production that was neither apt political metaphor, nor compelling character study, nor Grand Guignol melodrama, nor killer black comedy, nor fish, nor fowl, it was hard to blame them for phoning their performances in.

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