‘NOW IS THE WINTER OF OUR DISCONTENT MADE GLORIOUS SUMMER BY THIS SON OF YORK...” Jay Whittaker screams his first entrance as Richard III with such strained ferocity you’d think his audience sat across Balboa Park in the Starlight Bowl. Slope-shouldered with a feeble left arm — but not humpbacked — Whittaker wears a brace down his left leg. He does a one-legged goose step — like half a Hitler — and moves with fits and sudden jerks, speaks in a shrill, screechy cackle, and cavorts like a spoiled brat.
Whittaker’s opening-night performance was an acquired taste. Just about every move, early on, had a calculated, fingernails-on-the-blackboard intent, but had yet to become engrained. He came in full bore and was obviously working hard to be a world-class irritant.
This isn’t the expected Richard III, a satanic schemer trailing clouds of evil. This is more a manic gargoyle, ripped from the façade of a gothic cathedral. Though hindered by deformities, he’s far more active than anyone else (he loves to “bustle”). It’s clear that, since he “cannot prove a lover,” his plots have an almost sexual appeal. It’s also clear that nothing recharges his battery more than evil itself.
Richard claims to be “subtle.” Whittaker is not. But once he settles in, his zig-zaggy, loose-cannon performance could serve the text better than more somber readings. Under Lindsay Posner’s smart direction (not counting sight-line problems), Whittaker portrays severe psychological deformity. He recalls various dictators, but also conjures up Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer. The Duke of Gloucester’s a serial killer who slashes his way to the crown.
For Richard III, Shakespeare wrote a star vehicle for a black hole. Richard boasts he will woo and wed Lady Anne (whose husband and father Richard has slain) — and does it in one of theater’s most brilliant scenes. He systematically eliminates whoever stands next in line, including an extraordinary turnabout with soft-spoken Lord Hastings: “Talk’st thou to me of ifs! Thou art a traitor: Off with his head!”
Fortune’s wheel spins as swiftly. In the instant Richard becomes king, the wheel 180s, and he flips from archer to bullseye.
Dr. Faustus made a pact with the devil for 24 years of worldly power and pleasure. In a way, Richard makes a pact with the audience. He brags and shares his plans. When he falls from seemingly godlike control to chaos, the pact breaks, allies fall away as enemies did before, and he becomes increasingly alone. In the end, no one will come to his aid, not even a horse.
Whittaker’s at his best with Richard’s paranoia. His claw-like grasp, once firm, is now oily. No creature loves him, he says, and no one will pity him because he never pitied himself. But in the end, he has an admirable moment: “I have set my life upon a cast,/ And I will stand the hazard of the die.”
Richard’s like a photographic negative of the world around him. And the broken pact severs a strange connection. His soliloquies play like confessions — or, better still, anti-confessions. Which makes us, what? Anti-priests? Who does this diabolical villain, this “carnal cur,” think we are? And just how complicit have we been?
The Old Globe gives the play a spare, modern-dress look. Graffiti in several languages covers tall, concrete slabs. Huge eyes in the rear — like those at UCSD’s Ché Café — add a Big Brother touch. For the second half, Times Square–sized billboards resemble ads for a summer blockbuster: Richard III: First Blood. Deidre Clancy’s costumes delineate character. But their many shades of brown also serve as foils for Richard’s showy, outsized garb.
Ralph Funicello’s flexible set allows for intimacy and room enough to stage the Battle of Bosworth Field (1485), where Richard dies and the Plantagenet dynasty with him. It’s also the one place where the modern-dress concept breaks down: the soldiers fire automatic weapons, so instead of asking for a horse, you’d half expect Richard to shout, “My kingdom for a Humvee!”
After the battle, the Earl of Richmond (as Henry VII he’ll begin the reign of the House of Tudor) asks a telling question: “What men of name are slain on either side?” At least 15,000 soldiers fought that day. Stanley, Earl of Derby, mentions only four, all nobles.
The play’s a bit like that. Many of the characters exist as set-ups for Richard’s schemes. The cast fleshes them out as best they can: in particular, Robert Foxworth’s patient Hastings; Happy Anderson’s guilt-clogged Clarence; Dana Green’s irate Elizabeth (grandmother of Queen Elizabeth I); and Robin Moseley’s white-haired, prophetic Margaret (though she’d have been better served if they trimmed her lengthy speeches; the production made few, if any, cuts to a long script).
Jesse Jensen and Matthew Bellows give life to Richard’s lieutenants, Catesby and Ratcliffe (who resemble Michael Corleone’s Rocco and Neary in Godfather II). They, along with Francis Lovell, have been commemorated in a doggerel: “The Cat, the Rat/ And Lovell our Dog/ Rule all England/ Under an Hog.” ■
Richard III, by William Shakespeare
Lowell Davies Festival Stage, Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park
Directed by Lindsay Posner; cast: Jay Whittaker, Dan Amboyer, Happy Anderson, Matthew Bellows, Vivia Font, Robert Foxworth, Dana Green, Aldan Hayek, Charles Janasz, Jesse Jensen, Robin Moseley, Bob Pescovitz, Christopher Salazar, Jacques C. Smith, Jonathan Spivey, Sean-Michael Wilkinson; scenic design, Ralph Funicello; costumes, Deidre Clancy; lighting, Alan Burrett; sound, Lindsay Jones
Playing through September 29; runs in repertory with As You Like It and Inherit the Wind. 619-234-5623