Saturday, April 12, 2014

Richard III


The clean up continues at Chateau Maine. Removing all the traces of those odious Scrawcrunch persons is taking much longer than I had anticipated. I had Mr. Brad, my personal decorator, come over and look at the damages - ripped drapes, stained upholstery. He's busy ripping everything out of the first floor and redoing it all with some chic new semi-industrial materials he salvaged from the set of Minority Report. The flotation tank in the entrance hall will simply be the talk of the neighborhood when it's finished. Mr. Brad also says that all of the burnished steel will bring good feng shui to the rest of the house. I have asked him to spare the home theater from the remodel - I don't want all that opulent Ottoman tile touched.

I have had good news from Joseph, my manager; final contracts are in preparation for the starring role in the new major musical motion picture, Goodfollies. I am to play Toni Soprano, a lady mob boss in New Jersey who unleashes her inner demons through psychoanalysis. This will allow for some spectacular dream ballets, topical social commentary, and comedic gems as I exchange witty repartee with my analyst and my best friend in crime. Those roles have yet to be cast but I hear they're after major Hollywood names for them.  Julia Roberts and Renee Zellweger have been mentioned and I would just love to work with them and give them tips on performance for the camera.

In preparation for the role, I decided I should view a film about the prototypical mob boss so I retired into the home theater, away from the workmen who are installing some new sort of tube lighting system in the halls, and popped the DVD of Ian McKellen's Richard III into the machine. This film, from 1995, is based on a stage production of the play mounted by England's Royal Shakespeare Company some years earlier (also starring McKellen). This production moved the time frame from the late 15th century to a fictional 1930s and used the iconography of the fascist era to make the themes and politics of the play and its characters clearer. The red and white banners with black symbols, Gestapo like uniforms, bias cut dresses on the ladies, and scenes of tank warfare let a modern audience tap into other memories and connotations and give the play some fresh life.

Richard III is arguably the greatest of Shakespeare's history plays and covers the last stages of the War of the Roses in England, from the fall of Henry VI of House Lancaster through the Rise of Edward IV of House York and the subsequent defeat of the Yorkists by Henry Tudor, the Earl of Richmond, who later became Henry VII. The film opens with the murder of Henry VI and his son (including a brilliant shot of a tank crashing through a palace library) and then quickly switches to the triumphant York family celebrating their victory at a grand ball. Richard, Duke of Gloucester, younger brother of the new king, gives the famous "Now is the winter of our discontent.." speech as an opening public address, cutting, through the magic of film, from the podium to the urinal just as the speech changes tenor. Richard then begins a series of plots to bring himself and his cronies to the throne. To this end, he seduces and marries Lady Anne (Kristin Scott-Thomas), the widow of the former Prince of Wales, arranges for his brother, the Duke of Clarence (Nigel Hawthorne) to be imprisoned (and later murdered), disenfranchises the Queen Elizabeth (Annette Bening) and her brother, Earl Rivers (Robert Downey Jr.), denounced his nephews as bastards (and later has them killed through the machinations of his underlings Catesby (Tim McInnerny) and Tyrrell (Adrian Dunbar), eventually murders his wife and tries to marry his niece. His time on the throne is marked with intrigue, rebellion, and eventually war. He is defeated and killed at the Battle of Bosworth (where the famous "A horse!", in this production, refers to a jeep). The York family, having killed itself off, leaves the field open for the victor and the rise of the Tudor dynasty, rulers during the time of the play's writing.

Much has been made of the raw deal that Richard III has been given by history. There is minimal evidence for much of his supposed villainy. There is even an active Ricardian society working diligently to restore his reputation through new scholarship. (A good summary of the pro-Ricardian view can be found in Josephine Tey's novel, The Daughter of Time.) Henry Tudor's claim to the throne was shaky, at best, so the Tudor faction did it's best to assert its moral right be portraying Richard as a monster through a disinformation campaign. (There is evidence, for instance, that the Princes in the tower were alive at the time of Richard's death and that they were killed by Henry to help secure his claim to the throne, cemented through his marriage to their sister.)

The performances, by British performers well trained in the delivery of Shakespearean language, are uniformly excellent. The exceptions are the two Americans in the cast. The parts were cast American to emphasize the Queen and her brother's being outsiders to the royal circle, and the concept is fine. However, Annette Bening and Robert Downey Jr. just can't hold their own against the likes of McKellen or Maggie Smith or Jim Broadbent. Greater care should have been taken to find American actors more comfortable with classic verse, someone like Kevin Kline. McKellen is positively reptilian as Richard. His lidded eyes, small moustache, and minimal use of limp and deformity make his evil all the more threatening. He has great moment after great moment. His scenes with Maggie Smith, as his mother, are especially chilling.

To make the play more cinematic, it has been greatly edited. Whole scenes and characters have been excised. Lines have been truncated. The plot has been reduced. For purists, this may be problematic (and they can rent Laurence Olivier's brilliant 1954 film of the same play), but for the more adventurous, it makes the film an adventure, a morality play, and a rousing good time all at once. Richard Loncraine's direction uses the techniques of film to tell his story, adding to Shakespeare's famous words.

The physical production is great fun. The costumes are brilliant recreations of 30s fashions that never were and incredibly revealing of character in their choice of colors and styles. The Royal Pavilion in Brighton is used to good effect. The Tower of London is portrayed as a Bauhaus massive of concrete and rusted iron. Many of the same locations were used in the filming of the movie Brazil, which also used a proto-fascist feel, a decade earlier.

Big band singer. Hospital morgue. Symbolic foot on train. Drug addict queen. Supplemental oxygen. Sword through abdomen. Bathtub drowning. Grim exercise yard. Naked Princess Elizabeth. Symbolic falling into flames.

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