Review: Danai Gurira Makes a Sleek Supervillain or Richard III

It’s nice to dream of a time when disabled actors are employed so frequently, and in so many kinds of roles, that we need not discourage others from playing this one. And it’s true that the historical Richard probably suffered from nothing more than scoliosis, as an analysis of his recently discovered skeleton suggests. Shakespeare, I’ve said before, was a poet, not an osteopath.

But what was once the norm can now seem a kind of ableist mummery, which this production attempts to sidestep by offering a Richard with no physical impairments at all. When other characters, and even the man himself, scorn his disabilities and mock his ugliness, we are forced by the evidence of our senses to treat the derision metaphorically. (Richard, we tell ourselves, is morally toadlike, not physically so.) And though I usually enjoy being asked to see familiar characters in unfamiliar skins, in this case the sidestep blocks access to the deepest elements of the drama.

Those elements are what keep the otherwise ragged “Richard III” in the repertoire. The verse is extraordinarily pungent and the questions obviously eternal. When a production has us asking to what extent Richard’s evil is the product of people’s hatred of him, as opposed to his prior hatred of himself, it forces us to ask the same of our own leaders. In this season of our discontent, the scene in which Richard cynically holds up a Bible as a ginned-up crowd clamors to make him king is one you may find familiar.

Though we do not get to ask those profound questions in this production, there are nevertheless compensations. The staging itself is lovely, with Myung Hee Cho’s revolving circles of gothic arches speeding up the action and suggesting the inexorability of Richard’s rise and fall. (The arches are lit in beautiful pinks and purples by Alex Jainchill.) Dede Ayite’s witty mixed-period costumes score sociological points at a glance, from Anne’s tacky trophy-wife regalia to the doomed young princes’ spangly gold sneakers.

Glistening too are some of the performers in secondary roles, which, in this play, means all roles but Richard. Sanjit De Silva turns Buckingham, the king’s chief enabler, into a hopped-up hype man, high on the fumes of ambient amorality. Paul Niebanck makes a powerful impression as Richard’s brother George, who incorrectly believes he can talk his way out of anything. And as Queen Margaret, the widow of Henry, Sharon Washington demonstrates with brutal efficiency how specific hatred can soon become general, blistering everyone, even herself, in its path.

But these coherently interpreted characters do not add up to a coherent interpretation of the play, which wobbles between shouty polemics and a kind of Tudor snark. It may be that “Richard III” is in that sense uninterpretable; written to flatter Shakespeare’s royal sponsors, who were descendants of the victorious Richmond, its brilliance has always borne the sour odor of propaganda. That sourness is not sweetened by the fact that, to modern noses, the good guys smell a lot like the bad ones. If history plays cannot untangle for us what history itself leaves a jumble, they should at least help us figure out why.

Richard III
Through July 17 at the Delacorte Theater, Manhattan; publictheater.org. Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.