Demagogues on display – reviewing Studio Theatre’s Richard III

Studio Theatre’s gritty, urban production of Richard III feels uncomfortably familiar to audiences in 2019.

Director Max Rubin – who is an MFA directing candidate with the University of Alberta – has reimagined Shakespeare’s history of the rise of the infamous Richard III within the context of a contemporary, vaguely European setting. It’s appropriate, given the obvious parallels between Richard III and our world’s current set of demagogues. Rubin hails from the UK, which is tearing itself apart over Brexit and currently facing the tirades of its unelected Prime Minister. Here in Canada, we don’t even need to look south of the border anymore to find similar populist politicians; we’ve been electing them ourselves.

The set (designed by Jeremy Gordaneer) is a striking exploration of urban decay: stone archways clad in ramshackle scaffolding, sheets of corrugated tin, broken cinder blocks and other construction-site detritus. The centre of the stage is open to the pit, which the production makes use of by having characters regularly disappear down into its depths or rise up from them, as if shades marching back and forth from the mouth of the underworld.

The titular Richard is played by Caitlin Kelly: a bold casting decision, given that Richard III is one of the most coveted roles in the English dramatic canon and historically reserved for middle-aged men at the height of their careers. The two most notable twentieth-century examples are Ian McKellan in the 1995 film and Sir Laurence Olivier, who was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance in the iconic 1955 film. Casting a young woman in this role is a devilish move that feels very in tune with present-day politics, a cheeky thumbing of the nose at the male-dominated landscape of Shakespearean drama.

Richard III at Studio Theatre; photo by Ed Ellis

With an auburn buzzcut and sideways grin, Kelly’s Richard is impish and sly; like a baby-faced class clown with a psychotic sense of humour. She plays a crafty Richard with an obvious ego who is prone to volatile bursts of rage, most memorably in one scene where Richard quite literally tears down the throne – imagined here as a rickety tumble of industrial spools and blocks – that he has been working ruthlessly to build. This version of Richard isn’t immediately likeable per se but is fascinating to watch nonetheless; like a charismatic cult leader whose charms don’t quite work on you but seem to hold sway over everyone else.

The rest of the cast takes turns making their own mark on this piece and it is clear – and very impressive – that they’ve mastered the material. Even those audience members who find Shakespearean language befuddling would have absolutely no problems following along here. The performers spend good effort in the first half of the play providing clear portrayals of the main characters, making them instantly recognizable later on in the show. This is a blessing, given the number of characters in even this massively abridged version of the text. Braden Butler plays a bored, beer-swilling and vape-puffing Buckingham; Benjamin Blyth delivers an impassioned Clarence. Emily Corcoran’s nihilistic, abused Lady Anne elicits bemused pity; Nikki Hulowski, a returning U of A alumnus, delivers a punchy take on Margaret as a manic, addled spectre of her former self, clattering a shopping cart of belongings through various scenes.

Richard III at Studio Theatre; photo by Ed Ellis

The sound design stands out as one of the most interesting aspects of this production. Aaron Macri’s evocative design is an intriguing mashup of bass-thudding, grungy electronica, intros and outros of Latin rap and interludes of pop numbers. Those interludes function as a sort of self-eulogy, delivered karaoke-style by each of the characters upon their deaths. They break from the iambic pentameter and deliver their rendition of a pop classic – including David Bowie’s Fame, Nine Inch Nails’ Hurt and Tears for Fears’ Mad World – sung in Russian.

It’s a bit wild and sometimes the language doesn’t quite work out; the mismatched syllables in the Russian translations don’t always fit neatly within the original English tunes and can, at times, feel a bit clunky and forced. But as a dramatic device they are very memorable and function as good pressure release valves, blowing off some tension and injecting a bit of well-timed dark humour. The number featuring the York brothers – Richard’s doomed nephews – clad in fuzzy animal onesies and tentatively singing Hallelujah, is quietly heartbreaking and really amps up the grief expressed by the distraught Elizabeth (Beverley Rockwell) in the next scene.

Richard III at Studio Theatre; photo by Ed Ellis

Rubin’s production also makes use of live, large-scale projections that are beamed up onto the back of the set from a tablet held up to the performers. It’s another contemporary flair that feels like watching a YouTube vlogger or live Facebook feed. It’s a clever device that highlights certain key moments of the story, but there was also a slight time lag between the spoken lines and the video feed which was a little disorienting.

Richard III at Studio Theatre; photo by Ed Ellis

 

This is Studio Theatre’s first production of Richard III since 1976. It comes at a time that makes the source material unfortunately relevant, wrapped up in a fresh, new, twenty-first-century packaging.

Listen to this episode of the podcast to hear more about this show.

 

Richard III
S
tudio Theatre
Timms Centre for the Arts, until Oct 19, 2019


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