Ruthless, yes. But this ‘Richard III’ also charms
By BONNIE WELLS, Staff Writer
Thursday, June 19, 2003 -- HADLEY - If you think the War of the Roses was a spat between the tea rose and the American Beauty, you'll want a bit of background before attending Hampshire Shakespeare Company's season opener, "Richard III," next week.
The drama takes a page from the 30-year feud (1455 to 1485) between two branches of the Plantagenet royal family of England - the houses of York and Lancaster. Director Dean Acheson decided to reach back in the Shakespeare canon to start the action with the Battle of Tewksbury, the final battle of the Bard's previous history, "Henry VI, Part III."
In 1471, the Battle of Tewksbury put King Edward IV, a York, on the throne and set the stage for Richard, Duke of Gloucester, a Lancaster, to claw his way to the top.
"In history, it took 15 years," says dramaturg Megan Smithling. "In the play, it takes him until intermission."
As dramaturg, it's Smithling's job to orient the actors, director and designers to the time and culture of the play. She does the same for the audience by including in the program notes a royal genealogy, history and plot summary.
The play ends with Richard III's waterloo, the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, which ended the War of the Roses and brought Henry Tudor, the Earl of Richmond, to the throne as Henry VII - Queen Elizabeth's grandfather.
In sum, the play tells the story of Richard's rise and fall. History is written by the winners, said Acheson, and Shakespeare's account was no exception.
"Shakespeare was spinning history to favor the royal family (the Tudors)," he said. And notwithstanding the efforts of the 80-year-old British Richard III Society to sanitize his reputation, the Bard's central character, if not evil incarnate, is at least the most baldly and brutally ambitious to be found in the canon.
"It's easy to play him as an evil, mustachioed villain - inhuman," said Stephen Eldredge, who plays the title role. "I'm trying to make him more personal. With him everything is personal. His struggles are emotional struggles."
Eldredge said that he and Mark Dean, who plays his "handler," Buckingham, have been watching episodes of "The Sopranos" for research.
"There's a great parallel here if you think of 'The Sopranos' and 'The Histories' as being struggles between families and allegiances, full of powerful loyalties and betrayals," he said.
One of the allegiances Richard cultivates is with the audience. He speaks to the audience more than any other Shakespearean character, divulging his plans and casting the crowd in the role of co-conspirator.
"He's very seductive," Acheson said. "You want to know what he's doing and how he's doing it, and you celebrate his ingenuity. In this current climate of ambition, greed and loose ethical structures, 'Richard III' gives you something very contemporary, very understandable."
And for all his ruthlessness, Richard can be witty and charming. Though bodies pile up like cordwood, Acheson said the play is filled with humor. "You can only contrast such darkness with humor," he said. "It's a very funny play in the absurdity of it."
With lots of battle scenes, choreographed by the Valley's premier fights director, Jeff Lord, there's also a wonderful physicality to the show, Acheson said. "It's shamelessly entertaining."
By opening night, Acheson's work will be pretty much done and he'll be ready to settle in with the audience for the magic.
"There's this wonderful feeling when the audience comes in at one end, and the actors come in at the other," he said. "In this one brief moment, we build a sand castle, and then the tide takes it out. There's a sense of awe that happens."
"Richard III" is presented by the Hampshire Shakespeare Company Wednesdays through Sundays at 7 p.m. June 25 through July 13, under the stars at the Hartsbrook School, 193 Bay Road in Hadley. Each Friday there will be a pre-show talk or demonstration, beginning at 6:30 p.m.
Chairs are provided at the wheelchair-accessible venue, but audience members are also welcome to sit on the grass and bring a picnic or order a Picnic to Go from Flayvors of Cook Farm at 584-2224.
Tickets are $15; $10 students and seniors; $6 children under age 18. For more information, visit the company's Web site at www.hampshireshakespeare.org, or call 548-8118.