Dan Donohue is a sublime Richard III at OSF

Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Richard III boasts a 'perfect' Richard for the perfect villain


There aren’t many English kings who are famous enough to spark international excitement when their corpse is discovered… underneath a parking lot, no less. But that is, of course, exactly what happened to the remains of King Richard III in 2012, whose location had been lost in the centuries since his death. Then again, maybe this can be explained by revising that first thought slightly: There aren’t many English kings whose bodies could be discovered underneath a parking lot, period.

But this is Richard III, whose legacy is half slasher movie and half vaudeville act, who might be the object of history’s first concerted smear campaign, whose deeds are legendary even as the facts of many of his alleged crimes are lost to history. And no account has been as influential in preserving and presenting at least one version of his story than Shakespeare’s play about his reign, currently running at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival with the wonderful Dan Donohue in the title role.

Dan Donohue and RJ Foster battle for the crown in RICHARD III at Oregon Shakespeare Festival/Jenny Graham

Dan Donohue and RJ Foster battle for the crown in RICHARD III at Oregon Shakespeare Festival/Jenny Graham

Much like Richard himself, Shakespeare’s Richard III is flashy and fun, but much trickier than it initially appears. It’s steeped in the events of the three plays that preceded it in Shakespeare’s first historical tetralogy (Henry VI Parts 1-3). Unseen murders, battles, and marriages are alluded to and names are dropped everywhere (plus, everyone seems to be named Edward). The tangled web of allegiances and grudges that Richard hacks his way through is rooted in a past that Shakespeare’s audiences had just seen in the prequels, if they didn’t know it already, and therefore goes largely unexplained. The actors’ skilled and articulate delivery (not to mention the addition, new this year, of artificial amplification in the Allen Elizabethan Theatre, a brilliant decision) make it easier than usual to trace the references to the past, but director James Bundy does not attempt to simplify the historical framework on which the story rests.

The costumes (Ilona Somogyi) and set (Richard L. Hay) are both fairly traditional. The façade of the Allen Elizabethan Theatre is left almost untouched, and the addition of small platforms and staircases is integrated into the existing architecture. The costumes are of the period, almost the Elizabethan silhouettes that we associate with Shakespeare, but not quite. The nearness in time of the historical Richard to Shakespeare’s own is taken by most critics to explain why Richard III is his most biased history play, perhaps the only one with a true villain. Richard’s status as the evil heart of the play was enhanced in the eighteenth century rewrite by Colley Cibber that completely replaced Shakespeare’s text on stages in England and eventually America’s stages, too, until the 1870s. This adaptation made all of Richard’s victims morally irreproachable, presumably to hammer home the unquestionable injustice of Richard’s actions.

This production’s supporting characters seem to have been conceived in a similar vein to Colley Cibber’s. Though references to their perfidy aren’t excised, there’s never a very strong sense of the fact that Richard is operating in a world of people almost as corrupt and vindictive as himself— that in fact, this generalized air of deceit is partly why his guileless act works so convincingly. It’s not a huge problem, but it compounds the difficulty any actor not playing Richard in a production of Richard III will have: getting himself noticed. Richard dominates the play in stage time, number of lines, and sheer charm. He is the smartest and funniest person onstage and the only one to confide in the audience. He gets the length of an entire soliloquy in the opening minutes to win us over. In short, he casts a massive shadow that it is difficult for other characters to escape—not in the sense that they should try to steal scenes, but just creating a fully-rounded human being we wouldn’t want Richard to murder. The supporting cast here are all skilled, but they struggle to escape this natural shadow.

The exceptions are the women. This is equally because it’s a feature of the play itself, and because all four of them are splendid. The episodes contained in Richard III, as with all of Shakespeare’s history plays, are largely drawn from other sources, including Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland and Sir Thomas More’s The History of King Richard III. This latter work is possibly the ur-text for the popular image of Richard as a murderous tyrant (which makes sense, because More was writing for the son of the man who deposed Richard). Everything that happens in the play can be traced back to these or other known sources… except for the scenes with the women.

Franchelle Stewart Dorn and Judith-Marie Bergan lament their losses in RICHARD III at OSF/Jenny Graham

Franchelle Stewart Dorn and Judith-Marie Bergan lament their losses in RICHARD III at OSF/Jenny Graham

Richard’s seduction of Lady Anne (perhaps the most famous scene in the play) and his confrontations with Queen Elizabeth, deposed Queen Margaret, and his mother are the only scenes that sprang completely from Shakespeare’s own imagination. While his sources touched on the women only as they related to dynastic concerns (and Margaret was actually dead and buried in France by the time Richard came to the throne), Shakespeare imagined for them a parallel sphere to that of men and their political machinations, a world of lamentation and prophecy, where the murders that the men casually commit are recorded and remembered.

This chorus of women’s voices is one of two essential features that separated Shakespeare’s play from all the versions of Richard’s reign that came before. Yet it is often given short shrift in production, generally by the excision of Margaret and the reduction of Queen Elizabeth and the Duchess of York’s long scenes of lamentation, which bring the action to a strange kind of stop. But Richard’s encounters with these women offer a structural spine that is broken with these decisions, decisions that Bundy wisely does not make. While Richard tears through the world altering everything he touches, the women, particularly in this production, come away having altered him.

This is exemplified by Queen Elizabeth, who possibly has more family members murdered by Richard than anyone else onstage. As played by Robin Goodrin Nordli, a festival stalwart and one of its most talented actors, Elizabeth is a beacon of intelligence and dignity, self-assured, yet well aware of her vulnerability as an unpopular dowager queen. Her encounter with Richard is one of the play’s very few clashes of equals; it is also the meeting of two superlatively talented actors.

I mentioned that there are two features that separate Shakespeare’s play from the pack of Richard stories. The other is, of course, Richard himself. Dan Donohue takes the role, in his first appearance at OSF since he played Hamlet in 2010. His Richard is great. I will risk hyperbole and say that it approaches the perfect. He strikes all of the contrasts that make Richard so endlessly compelling and so unlike any version that had come before: the hilarious charm with which he courts the audience from his first moment and the blithe, remorseless recourse to murdering his own family; the fantastic confidence and profound self-loathing.

His famed deformity consists here of a hunched back, a twisted and nonfunctioning left arm, and a braced left leg. Donohue’s Richard shifts seamlessly from wielding these handicaps for dramatic effect (a well-timed fall, an unnecessarily labored attempt to use his left hand) to barely contained hurt and rage when his nephew mocks his hump. In the aftermath of his successful seduction of Lady Anne, Richard seems genuinely moved by his realization that “she finds, although I cannot,/Myself to be a marvelous proper man.” He vows to pay more attention to his clothes, and in a costuming gesture that’s strangely rare, actually does this: At Richard’s next appearance, he has changed from a shabby and almost monkish grey robe to sumptuous red and gold to match his princely brothers.

Donahue’s depiction of Richard’s vulnerability is sufficiently visible to provide flashes of insight into this hurt and twisted man, but never enough to excuse the vicious way Richard has redirected his loneliness and rage. Nor does he suggest that this is just a wounded little boy lashing out at the world. There is something profoundly wrong at the heart of this Richard, something he himself begins to glimpse the night before his final battle and recoils from in horror and despair.

The skeleton that was discovered two years ago confirms the legends about what happened to Richard after his death at the battle of Bosworth Field. He was draped naked across the back of a horse and stabbed repeatedly, and then he was very likely scalped. His enemies were determined to leave him to rot, but a group of friars secreted him into an abbey, where the precise location of his remains was eventually lost to history. Or at least to a parking lot.

In order to cement his tenuous claim to the English throne, the future Henry VII had to see Richard discredited, demonized, and erased. But as Shakespeare’s Richard could have told him, the best-laid villainous plots have a nasty habit of backfiring in unexpected ways. After all, Richard III died almost 530 years ago. The most famous play about his life, written around 420 years ago, is performed around the world today. And Henry VII has been immortalized as the wooden upstart who ruined the fun.

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