Creating A Character: Richard III

In 2011, I wrote a graduate thesis about some of the challenges of playing Shakespeare’s Richard III, specifically those related to playing his deformity. What follows in this post is an adaptation of the presentation I gave m at the American Shakespeare Center’s Blackfriars Playhouse, in Staunton Virginia. I gave this presentation with the help of my actors, Matt Carter, Jemma Levy, Amanda Noel Allen, and David Santangello. I also interviewed live onstage, one of the ASC’s greatest actors John Harrell and his director Thadd McQuade, about a unique production of Richard that he performed for the company back in 2002. What follows is the script I wrote for the presentation, as well as the video and Powepoint slides I projected for the audience, to help you see my work in performance. You can also consult a website I designed for the ASC’s production of Henry VI, Part III, where Richard was played by actor Ben Curns.


PRESENTATION SCRIPT 

MATT CARTER:

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,


And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them.

Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity:
Applause, he sits on one of the gallant stools.

 

Section 1: Introduction

Slide01 

PAUL:

Many of you recognize those famous lines from the opening soliloquy of Richard III, ably delivered by Matt Carter. Did you notice the ways Matt was moving and the qualities of his voice? Tonight, my actors and I will show you some of the choices actors have made in playing the deformity of Richard III. Deformity and Richard are so closely linked that I would argue that it is the central driving force of the character. The different performances we will discuss show changes in views on deformity, as well as changing theories on the actor’s craft.

Every actor is interested in the human body, every actor is interested in how the mind and body work together, and most importantly, how to present the mind and body of a character to an audience in a clear and articulate way. No matter how the actor decides to represent it, Richard’s deformity of mind and body are essential to the understanding of the character. In his first soliloquy, in the play Henry the Sixth, Part III, he expresses a deep pain, sorrow and bitterness at being denied a normal body. As Jemma delivers this speech, ask yourself- do you pity him? Does this man have a reason to be angry?

JEMMA LEVY:

Why, love forswore me in my mother’s womb:
And, for I should not deal in her soft laws,
She did corrupt frail nature with some bribe,
To shrink mine arm up like a wither’d shrub;
To make an envious
mountain on my back,
Where sits deformity to mock my body;
To shape my legs of an unequal size;
To disproportion me in every part,
And am I then a man to be beloved?
O monstrous fault, to harbour such a thought! 

Henry VI, Part III, Act III, Scene i.

PAUL:

In this speech, like the previous one, Richard expresses the belief that his deformity was a curse, laid on by his mother. During the Renaissance, people believed that deformity was a mark of evil and a sign of being cursed by God. Like the Mark of Cain in the Bible, Richard’s deformity signifies that he was “determined,” (presumably by God), to prove a villain.” The deformity also gives Richard psychological motivation. Lacking a normal body, Richard is hungry for revenge, and in search of something to elevate himself above more fortunate people- power.


Section 2: Burbage

PAUL: The first Richard was almost certainly Richard Burbage, Shakespeare’s star actor. Burbage was associated with the role long after his death.

 

DAVID SANTAGELLO:

A funerall Elegy on the death of the famous Actor Richard Burbage:

Who died on Saturday in Lent, the 13th of March 1618′

No more young Hamlet though but scant of breath

Shall cry revenge for his dear father’s death:

Edward shall lack a representative,

And Crookback, as befits, shall cease to live.”

PAUL:

Unfortunately, we have no information on how Burbage played the deformity, but we have one clue as to how his performance might have been received, in the form of an apocryphal story from the diary of law student John Manningham, on 13 March 1602:

 

AMANDA:

Upon a time when [Richard] Burbage played Richard III,

There was a citizen grew so far in liking with him that before she went from the play,

She appointed him to come that night unto her by the name of Richard III.

Shakespeare, overhearing their conclusion, went before, was entertained, and at his game ere Burbage came.

The message being brought that Richard III was at the door,

Shakespeare caused return to be made that ‘William the Conqueror was before Richard III.’


Slide02 

PAUL:

Although this story is apocryphal, it does hit upon other features of Richard’s deformity- his supreme confidence, and his beast-like sexuality.  Scholars have pointed out that Richard’s lack of scruples, (the result of being born deformed), makes him completely focused and confident. Likewise, his non-conformity to traditional standards of beauty could also be seen as a rebellion against societal norms, and thus, a strange aphrodisiac. This dark creature, without a recognizable human shape, manages to exert a dark pull on the audience.

Section 3: Cibber

Slide03

Surprisingly, for nearly 300 years, portrayals of Richard III have been heavily influenced by an obscure author who was not even Shakespeare’s contemporary

During the Restoration of theater in the 17th century Shakespeare’s plays were largely out of fashion, condemned by critics as “too vulgar for this refined age,” and playwrights began to rewrite and adapt them. The most successful adaptation of Richard the Third, came from poet-laureate Colley Cibber in 1671. Cibber’s text interpreted the story as one man’s evil rise to the crown, not the culminating story of the Wars of The Roses. Cibber cut most of the history involved.  He condensed scenes, omitted others, and gave Richard 10% more of the dialogue, then Shakespeare. Cibber’s text also re-emphasizes the importance of deformity to Richard’s character- adding 8 more uses of the words “deformed,” or “ugly.” To further the point, Cibber inserted text from other Shakespeare plays that speak about Richard’s deformity, such as the Henry VI speech spoken earlier. Cibber freely cut-and pasted from Shakespeare’s histories, which can be demonstrated in this speech where the Lady Anne mourns for the death of Henry the Sixth, using lines written by Shakespeare for the funeral of King Henry the Fifth:

AMANDA:

Hung be the heavens with black, yield day to night!
Comets, importing change of times and states,
Brandish your firey tresses in the sky,
And with them scourge the bad revolting stars
That have consented unto Henry’s death!

O be accursed, the hand that shed his blood

Accursed the head that had the heart to do it!
If ever he have wife, let her be made
More miserable by the life of him
As I am made by Edward’s death and thine!

PAUL:

Cibber also wrote his own speeches for Richard, such as this one where Richard resolves to woo Lady Anne in spite of his deformity:

 

JOHN HARRELL:

But see! My love appears. Look where she shines

Through her dark veil of rainy sorrows

Tis true, my form perhaps may little move her;

But I’ve a tongue shall wheedle with the devil.

PAUL: Cibber’s text was extremely popular with actors because it raised Richard’s importance to a star role. Actors such as David Garrick made their debut as Cibber’s Richard, and some of Cibber’s editorital choices still survive in the two movie versions of Richard by Ian McKellen and Laurence Olivier.

13188-15979IanMcKellen

Section 4: Olivier

Olivier, in the 20th century was considered the definitive Richard. In his film version he emphasizes Richard’s evil and deceptive nature. He uses the character’s physical disabilities (as well as various cinematic techniques) to reveal his moral depravity.Slide04

  • The Crown of England- the tremolos and the large crown that appears in the beginning, middle, and end of the film. Homage to Cibber.
  • CINEMATIC USE OF DEFORMITY
  • Long camera angles as he limps away, exposing hump and limp
  • Shadowy silhouette
  • In this shot, Richard slinks away from the camera, leaving his bizarre silhouette to unfurl like a snakeSlide06
  • In this shot, Richard bends over to whisper evil thoughts into the king’s ear.
  • Finally, in this shot, we see the shadow of Richard’s head, as he stares into the cell of his brother Clarence, as he plans his murder. We see through this shot, Richard looms as a great evil presence.

Section 5: Sher

Slide07After Olivier, actors abandoned the approach of making Richard into a monster, and favored a more human, natural approach.

The role of Richard III however, presents unique challenges for actors attempting to do this; they are attempting to do something un-natural by playing a deformity that they do not actually have. Thus they are attempting to play something “un-natural” within the precepts of naturalistic acting.. Antony Sher’s massive preparation for the role, using Method acting techniques, included both a thorough research into the physical effects of real disability, and a deep examination of its psychological effects.Slide08

  • Used Method acting techniques to create the role:
    • Real-life experience- Crutches came from his own real injury.
    • Research into physical deformity.
    • Textual Research
    • Image Research. He used Margaret’s text to create a visual design for his character, a bottled spider.
    • Psychoanalysis- brought Shakespeare’s text to a real psychiatrist to “put Richard on the couch.”
  • Sher’s technique led him to go into a deep, psychological probing of Richard’s mind. He viewed the deformity as a source of deep pain, through which we can identify with Richard as a human being.
  • Listen to how David, applying Method-inspired text analysis, conveys Richard’s human emotions.

DAVID:

But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
I, that am rudely stamp’d, and want love’s majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;

 

PAUL: Sher’s massive preparation for the role represent the limits that an able bodied actor could go to portray a disability he himself did not have.


Section 6: From Sher to HarrellSlide09

  • Sher’s Richard created an unexpected backlash from disabled community.
  • One response to this: a number of Richards played by disabled actors.
  • Henry Holden in 2007. Like Sher, on crutches, only he needed them.
  • Peter Dinklage played the role with none of the traditional deformities.
  • His size was a kind of disability, as it literally hindered him from taking the crown
    • He was tangled in his robes,
    • Couldn’t reach the throne.
  • Critics writing about the performance claimed watching him was more real. You weren’t watching a performance, you watched a real man, with a real struggle.
  • Another response is approaching the deformity from a more stylized perspective.
  • This was the approach favored by Thadd McQuade.Slide11
  • The essence of this performance was watching a man struggle through life trying to overcome obstacles and find a place for himself in the world, a struggle that is the essence of all tragedy.

Section 7: 10 minute interview with Thadd and John.Slide12Both– Explain the way you chose to represent deformity (bowling ball) and why.

  • John- I got an email from actor JP Schiedler, (who was in the production) who said “ As I recall John was very interested in working inside of some form of restriction which forced his body to adapt, struggle and physically change how he could deal with the world around him which the ball did.” If this is true, I’d like you to talk about this idea- why was it important for you to have something that restricted you? I want to get an idea of how you saw the physicality of Richard and how it is important to the character.
  • Thadd, when I interviewed you, you mentioned that doing the play naturalistically can actually be off-putting because an able-bodied actor will never completely pull off the deformity. I want you to repeat some of that to explain the virtues of a more presentational Richard.
  • Both- How did your techniques contribute to a better understanding of the play for the audience?

Conclusion: Richard’s deformities and disabilities are both physical and psychological. They are the driving force in his life. Portraying Richard’s deformity is a microcosm of the challenges that face all actors: making choices of how to explore the mind and body of a character. Watching an actor take on the challenge of portraying this man’s struggles. This struggle is the essence of tragedy and watching an actor take on the challenge of creates powerful and poignant theatre.

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