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Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Richard III—Prototypical Villain

By Christian Barclay

Richard III was King of England from 1483 until his death in 1485, at the age of 32, in the Battle of Bosworth Field. He was the last king of the House of York and the last of the Plantagenet dynasty. And, if centuries-old stories are to be believed, he was one of the great villains of English history. Shakespeare’s Richard III depicts his Machiavellian rise and reign. The play, written during the early 1590s, shaped and cemented Richard’s reputation as a “rudely stamp’d” hunchback, “subtle, false and treacherous,” guilty of “stern murder in the dir’st degree.”

In director Thomas Ostermeier’s bold and brash Richard III for Schaubühne Berlin (Enemy of the People, NWF 2013), at the BAM Harvey from Oct 11 to 14, the infamous king (played by Lars Eidinger) is a gleefully amoral psychopath, shuffling across the stage with an artificial hump, a skull cap, and clubfoot shoe. He confides in the audience his darkest deeds and thoughts––“I am determined to prove a villain, And hate the idle pleasures of these days”––as he goes about sowing discord to his advantage. Richard’s rise and reign is ruthless and, in many ways, recognizable. The curse of physical deformity, the power hungry political machinations, and the kill or be killed mentality are found everywhere in popular culture. They define modern-day villainy, from Dr. No and Frank Underwood to the beleaguered rulers of Westeros. We may recognize them as inherently bad; it’s not quite enough to turn away, and may in fact serve to draw stronger scrutiny.

Richard’s hunchback is the literal and figurative chip on his shoulder, a feature that all but relegates him to a life of scorn. “Cheated of feature, by dissembling nature,” Richard’s villainy is an outgrowth of his deformity; a wretched soul for a wretched body. Modern reflections can be found in the scores of James Bond villains with metallic hands, steel-capped teeth, and facial scars. Rather than mask their motives, their strange and defining features all but mark them as suspicious characters. It is often the easiest way to predict a final showdown––keep an eye on the man who weeps blood.

When we first meet Richard as the Duke of Gloucester, he reveals the first step in his master plan. “Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous, By drunken prophecies, libels and dreams, To set my brother Clarence and the king, In deadly hate the one against the other.” Throughout the course of the play, Richard relays his schemes directly to the audience, pausing between moves to explain his strategy. His cunning machinations and steely delivery bring to mind another power hungry politician––House of Cards’ Frank Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey. When they break the fourth wall, it is often with glee: a wink and nudge before driving the dagger in. (Spacey played a savage Richard III in the Bridge Project’s searing 2012 rendition at the Harvey Theater, directed by Sam Mendes and co-produced by BAM, The Old Vic, and Neal Street.)

By the end of the play, Richard’s brother, nephews, and wife have paid the price for his unyielding ambition. These deaths epitomize Richard’s amorality––there is little emotion attached to the acts, but rather a cold and clear sense of purpose. It’s the same drive that fuels the warring factions on Game of Thrones, where queens and would-be kings burn their citizens and sacrifice their children to a mythic god. Driven by a righteous self-regard, their path to power is strewn with the bodies of those who dared get in the way.

Richard ruled too short of a time for any serious evaluations of his reign to be made. Shakespeare, a dutiful glorifier of the Tudors, had no qualms in portraying him as a single-mindedly ruthless man. Though history hasn’t been kind to him, Richard’s prototypical villainy has spawned countless anti-heroes, henchmen, and scarred sociopaths. These characters have a way of capturing our imagination, compelling us to follow them—and often against our better judgement, root for their success.

Richard III comes to the 2017 Next Wave Festival Oct 11—14.

Christian Barclay is a publicist at BAM.

1 comment:

  1. I can't say that Richard III is one of my favourite plays, but I did like the Iain McKlellan movie. He certainly is portrayed as a machiavellian ruler, and since GRRM based his books on the war of the Roses, it is a quite relevant connection.


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