Stage history

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Performance history expert Rebecca Brown guides us through the stage history of Richard III from the time Shakespeare wrote it to the present day:  

 

Shakespeare's own company 

The earliest record of a performance of Richard III is in the court papers of 1633, noting that the play was performed before King Charles on 16 November. Although no earlier record survives we know - from contemporary anecdotes, allusions and parodies - that the play was a big success. Its printing history also demonstrates its popularity: it went through six quarto editions before its inclusion in the 1623 Folio edition of Shakespeare's complete works, as well as two more after it.

The play's first performances were presented in daylight on the simple thrust stage of an Elizabethan playhouse. The lack of scenery was a help rather than a hindrance in allowing fast-paced, fluid action and a focus on the players and their speech. Music, costume (royal and plebeian), appropriate weaponry and a few essential props were all that was required.

Shakespeare wrote the role of Richard of Gloucester, the consummate actor, for his company's own real-life consummate actor, Richard Burbage. From the 1590s to the present day, this virtuoso role has been one of the most prized in classical theatre: it is so well written and entertaining that it is as near as it gets to being fool-proof.

Shakespeare's own extraordinary genius clearly flourished in response to the extraordinary gifts of his leading actor. To his performances, Burbage evidently brought a charismatic physical presence, the superb vocal technique needed to deliver long speeches of blank verse, the talent and skill to express both witty intelligence and emotional truth, and an acute psychological observation of human behaviour. The boy players in the company must have been accomplished and gifted professionals because Shakespeare relied on them to portray his impressive array of noble-women and queens. In order to cover the play's 52 speaking parts, even the largest Elizabethan company would have had to double many of the roles.

Eighteenth century

In 1700, the playwright and actor, Colley Cibber, refashioned Richard III to suit the taste of the new century. He retained only a quarter or so of Shakespeare's original text, while adding some of his own and borrowing some lines from Richard's self-revealing soliloquies in Henry VI Part 3. Richard's starring role became even more dominant as characters such as Edward, Margaret, Clarence and Hastings disappeared altogether.
This simplified version of the play continued to be very popular for the next two centuries, keeping its place on the English stage longer than any other seventeenth-century adaptation.

In 1741, this adapted version was played for the first time by the young David Garrick, who was to become one of its most famous interpreters. Garrick was famous for the astonishing expressiveness of his face, body and voice, all of which he exploited to portray the Richard's mercurial intelligence, sardonic wit and courageous death. His brilliance in the role, sustained throughout his long career, did much to secure the play's long-lasting popularity. Like Hamlet, the role became a benchmark for success and every actor worth his salt had to prove himself in it.

Nineteenth century

In the early nineteenth century, Edmund Kean's performance thrilled his audience with its audacious combination of naturalism and tragic grandeur. One contemporary observer described his first entry into the play thus: 

    Kean bustled across the stage, every movement of his body alert and quick. The audience, accustomed to the heroic strut of tragedians, were startled. He seemed completely unaware of them; conscious of nothing but his own reflections. His opening soliloquy was not declaimed but spoken in natural tones.  

His final moments are described like this:

    He fought like one drunk with wounds, and the attitudes in which he stands with his hands stretched out, after his sword is taken from him, had a preternatural and terrific grandeur, as if his will could not be disarmed and the very phantoms of despair had the power to kill.  

The great actor-managers of the nineteenth century, William Charles Macready, Samuel Phelps and Henry Irving, all won applause and made money from their splendidly pictorial productions of the play, in which a painstakingly reproduced medievalism delighted the eye. In these productions, some of Shakespeare's original text was restored but Cibber's influence remained strong.

Twentieth century

This influence can still be seen in the most significant of the play's twentieth-century productions: that directed by John Burrell at the Old Vic in 1944. Laurence Olivier dominated this production, with a performance of devastating power, charismatic evil and insolent wit. This influential production had a long and successful life, touring Europe, Australia and New Zealand. Olivier directed a film version in 1955.

In 1980, the Rustaveli Company of Georgia brought its production of Richard III to London. The actors were liberated from the traditions of Shakespearian acting by virtue of their non-English nationality and their Georgian translation of the text. British actors and directors who saw the production were excited and inspired by the boldly physical inventiveness of their approach, particularly that of Ramaz Chkhivadze as a cartoonish, toad-like Richard.

Michael Bogdanov directed the play as the final instalment of his Wars of the Roses, in which he adapted the three Henry VI plays into two and closed with Richard III. The time period established for the first part of his trilogy was that of the beginning of the twentieth century and the plays progressed through the century until Richard sat as King not on a throne but at a computer desk, dressed in a contemporary pins-triped business suit. For the final dream-like battle sequence, the production reverted to traditional armour and swords. The trilogy was filmed in 1990.

The twentieth century provided the setting for Richard Eyre's successful production at the National Theatre in 1990. Ian McKellen's deadpan and deadly Richard was a 1930s patrician, exploiting fascism in order to rise to power. This production formed the basis of a film, directed by Richard Loncraine in 1995.

Jane Howell directed the play in 1982 for the BBC TV series of Shakespeare's plays, with the same cast as that of her BBC productions of the Henry VI plays. Ron Cook played Richard and Julia Foster played Margaret.

Twenty-first century

The play continues to be good box office. In the early twenty-first century, productions include that directed by Michael Grandage at Sheffield's The Crucible in 2002, with Kenneth Branagh in the title role. In 2003, at Shakespeare's Globe, Barry Kyle directed an all-female production, with the protean Kathryn Hunter as Richard. 

 

RSC productions of Richard III »

 

Written by Rebecca Brown © RSC
Image shows Ian Holm as Richard in the RSC's 1964 production of Richard III.
Image © RSC. By kind permission of Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

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