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Richard III x 3

posted by Mickey on 10/15/02

Over the last year or so, the English Royal family has been on people's minds. OK, so has a lot of other stuff, but the Queen's Golden Jubilee celebration was a moment of splendid pageantry, brought to a highly fitting conclusion when millions of Britons sang "Hey Jude," which I had always understood to be a song about John Lennon's son. The relevance of the song to the Queen's jubilee escaped me, but, hey, it is a great song. It was great to hear a lot of Poms having a jolly good old-fashioned singalong as if they didn't have a care in the world.

Then there was the 5th year anniversary of Princess Diana's death. Five years is an awkward period of time. When people think back on the clothes they wore and the music to which they listened five years ago, it is often with a pretty keen sense of embarrassment. When people look back at moments in popular culture over a longer time span, say 20 years, the view is in many ways much clearer and having been into, say, Adam Ant in 1982 can seem more reputable than having been into, say, Fiona Apple in 1997. That is because Adam Ant has found his place in history and Fiona Apple, perhaps, has not. But I think all those people who were prostrate with grief over the passing of Princess Diana would agree that the passing of the years has done nothing to diminish the lustre of the People's Princess, that her death was one of the most significant events ever to have occurred, and that the re-release of Elton John's "Candle in the Wind" was a moving tribute to a woman who was so very much more than a dim-headed Sloan Ranger who put it about behind Charlie Boy's back.

At the time of Diana's demise, I predicted that because the English tabloid press, and Women's magazines all around the world, abhor a vacuum, they would anoint a new People's Princess. I was bolder than that. I said that I thought the person they would choose would be Victoria Adams (as she then was) aka Posh Spice. I believed she would be the perfect candidate for the job, being both a person in the public eye, and an aristocrat. There were people at the time who believed her inability to sing or dance made her a liability in the Spice Girls line up. How wrong were they? Anyone who even begins to understand the English class-system would realise what a privilege it always was for the other, relatively-talented Spices to be permitted to share a stage with a genuine blue-blood like Posh. Now, in 1997 when I said that Posh Spice would be the new People's Princess, I must admit I was kind of joking. I have, however, been almost totally vindicated. Certainly her attempt at a solo career was a disaster, but that was only a musical disaster, and one that has done nothing to effect her broader status as the new People's Princess. Moreoever, I believe the VB album itself only went wrong with choice of material. What she ought to have done was yet another update of "Candle in the Wind" with re-written lyrics to reflect her new, regal position. Imagine her bringing the song to a haunting conclusion by singing:

My husband's a midfielder for
Manchester United.

You try and tell me that wouldn't have been a big hit. It would have been sailed out of shops the way a David Beckham cross sails into the goalmouth.

Getting back to the official Royal family, earlier this year, of course, there was the untimely passing of the Queen Mother, stuck down in her prime at the age of only 101. I suppose she took it as a hint when her children began to die of old age, and decided, with that glorious sense of noblesse oblige she always had, that the time had arrived to kick the bucket. The news of her passing reminded many of her subjects (including myself) of how gallantly she had fought for the Allied cause during the Second World War, when she not only thought nothing of climbing into a Spitfire in the afternoon to shoot down a few Jerry, but would then entertain her fellow pilots into the wee hours of the morning by pumping out her inimitable version of "Knees Up Mother Brown" on the squadron room piano.


We hope that in the next life they have lives of privilege and comfort, to make up for all the sufferings they experienced.

All in all, then, between half of them dropping dead and the big "Hey Jude" singalong, it has been a terrific time for the Royal family. But the Royals are only part of the richness of the English heritage. There are also such items as football hooliganism, "The Benny Hill Show," Andrew Lloyd Webber, and, of course, Shakespeare. When Hollywood wants to make a classy flick, it still turns to its top word scribbler, William Shakespeare. Unfortunately, most of the resulting cinema is meretricious. Shakespeare wrote plays, not screenplays, and most filmed versions of Shakespeare suffer from too many middle length shots with a fixed camera, while some guy in tights hollers out dialogue full of clichés. Sure, the clichés may have been coined by Shakespeare, but the sudden dramatic pauses to signal that a famous bit is coming up are very irritating. Most Shakespeare movies, considered as works of cinema, are pedestrian. There is more cinematic thinking to be found in a five-minute excerpt taken at random from a Jackie Chan movie than in the whole of most Shakespearean adaptations. One exception, to be sure, was the hyperactive gimmickry of Baz Lurhman's "Romeo & Juliet," a film that could not be faulted for absence of film-making ideas, although it could be faulted for giving me a splitting headache.

So, here is a brief look at how film-makers have tackled Shakespeare's most popular look at the English Royal family: "Richard III". I have chosen to have a look at this play because there are usually at least three separate movies of, or about, "Richard III" available on the racks of a reasonably well-stocked video/DVD rental joint, and all of them have a reason for existing beyond being an easy way for students who have been assigned the play to assimilate it. At least one of the adaptations is a genuine work of cinema, and my pick, by a country mile, for the all-time best movie presentation of a Shakespeare play (I haven't seen them all, but I've seen plenty).


Halo, Halo. What's going on here, then?

Of course, as well as a bunch of movies, there is also a rich literature devoted to interpretations of the play (probably), and I don't expect to become one of the leading interpreters of "Richard III" in the same way I like to think of myself as one of the leading interpreters of Patrick Swayze's "Black Dog," but I have done more in the way of research for this post than any other, by reading over the play and also flicking through a few popular accounts of English history in the period from the Wars of the Roses up to the Tudor accession.

Sadly, parts of "Richard III" are difficult to understand if you fail to master some part of the history of the events the play purports to describe; and even more unfortunately, this particular period of history is acknowledged by professional historians to be more than usually dense and incomprehensible. As if this wasn't bad enough, since the historical Richard III was nothing at all like the Shakespearean Richard III, any preparation you do make is only preparation for an exercise in doublethink.

Personally, I get great pleasure from reading history books, and this is only slightly soured by the fact that because my brain has the consistency of a sieve, as soon as I have finished reading am historical work, I instantly forget every fact it contains. If you had come to me a week ago I could have told you a lot more about this, but basically what English history in this period can be boiled down to is that for 60 years or so in the middle of the 15th century a bewildering profusion of people all laid claim to the English throne. Most of them were called either Edward or Henry. As war followed war, and monarch followed monarch, the claims became more and more dubious. Richard III's claim was particularly suspicious, but may have been popular with the peasants as making a nice change from all those damn Edwards and Henrys.

When the action of the play opens, Edward IV is sitting on the English throne, and the Duke of Gloucester (aka Richard III) stands approximately no-where in the line of succession, since Edward has a couple of kids, and between Edward and Richard is a middle brother. In Shakespeare's version Richard/Gloucester has to plot and murder his way to the throne, and when he gets there, he continues to plot and murder, by habit, until he gets overthrown by the forces of righteousness in the shape of Henry VII, the first Tudor King. Unfortunately, if there is one thing that all modern historians can agree upon, it is that Henry VII had such a poor claim to the crown, genealogically, that his accession to it had about as much legitimacy as Count Basie or Duke Ellington would have had if they had suddenly shown up and claimed seats at the English House of Lords. Moreover, out of an exceedingly bad lot, Henry VII appears to have been one of the worst scoundrels ever to sit on the throne. However, Shakespeare wrote his story at the time when a Tudor was still on the throne (Queen Elizabeth I) so it was politic for him to write the story the way he did.

Another way to sum the play up is to say that it opens with one of the most famous lines in all literature, spoken by Gloucester/Richard;

"Now is the winter of our discontent"

After this, neither Gloucester/Richard nor anyone else, says anything particularly famous until, just before he dies, Richard (I'm sick of writing Gloucester/Richard, and won't do it anymore) says:

"A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!"

Apart from the two lines I have already quoted, the general viewer won't recognise any of the phrases, unlike the casual watcher of "Othello" or "Macbeth" or "Hamlet" or "Romeo and Juliet" or "Henry V," who will be constantly saying to himself or herself, oh so that is where such and such a line came from. Richard gets off his line about being prepared to swap his kingdom for a nag just before dying at the Battle of Bosworth Field (in 1485) where he was the last king of England to die in a battle.


Whatever, Duke

The template cinema version of "Richard III" is the version that Laurence Olivier directed, as well as starred in, in the late 1940s. Not only is this the longest version of the play of the ones under consideration, it is the most conventional in terms of staging and cinema-making technique. Olivier establishes we are in Plantagenet England by having conehead courtiers in the background, and velvet curtains and fleurs-de-lis everywhere. The patience of the audience is tested by interpolations from previous Shakespeare history plays. While there are some clever cinematic touches, like a number of shots where Richard's shadow, rather than his form, announce his presence, more thought has gone into the costumes than into how to the camera could be moved effectively. There is a minimum of editing. The sets are stage sets. The music is twee.

The whole worth of the film, and it is a considerable worth, is that it preserves a great performance. Laurence Olivier makes a brilliant Richard III. He commands every scene he is in, which, given that every ham on the English stage appears to have been given a part, is not an inconsiderable feat. The voice Olivier adopted to pay the part has often been compared with the voices of the daleks in "Doctor Who" but that is actually neither fair nor accurate. Olivier's voice is characterised by clipped, staccato syllables, and leaps into a higher register for certain syllables, which add greatly to the menace. Although the matter of the play is tragic, Olivier plays the part very much as if it were a screwball comedy, spraying out his lines like a hunchbacked and intermittently high-pitched comedian; and constantly leaning into the camera to explain what is going on as if Richard III was a slightly more sinister version of Ferris Bueller. My favourite touch is the great cheerfulness with which he announces the execution of his brother, the Duke of Clarence (John Gielgud) to the court:

K. EDWARD. Is Clarence dead? The order was reversed.
GLOUCESTER. But the poor soul by your first order died/ and that a winged Mercury did bear./Some tardy cripple bore the countermand/That came too lag to see him buried.

That might read as high-faluting, but when you see the way Olivier puts the lines over, you can't help but grin. He was good and he knew it- a great actor at the peak of his skill. There is a good story in Anthony Sher's book, "The Year of the King" about the (now but not then) famous English stage actor, Michael Gambon, doing an audition for Olivier in the early 1960s when Olivier was a director at the Old Vic theatre, where the dialogue ran like this:

OLIVIER. What are you going to do for me?
GAMBON. Richard the Third.
OLIVIER. Is that so? Which part?
GAMBON. Richard the Third.
OLIVIER. Yes, but which part?
GAMBON. Richard the Third.
OLIVIER. Yes, I understand that, but which part?
GAMBON. Richard the Third.
OLIVIER. But which character? Catesby? Ratcliffe? Buckingham's a good part …
GAMBON. Oh, I see. I beg your pardon, no, Richard the Third.
OLIVIER. What, the King? Richard?
GAMBON. _ the Third. Yeah.
OLIVIER. You've got a fucking cheek, haven't you?
GAMBON. Beg your pardon?
OLIVIER. Never mind, which part are you going to do?
GAMBON. Richard the Third.
OLIVIER. Don't start that again. Which speech?

On at least one occasion in the movie, Olivier the brilliant actor seems to be odds with Olivier the pedestrian director, when during the "Now is the winter of our discontent" monologue, he delivers some lines about how grim visag'd war is capering nimbly in a lady's chamber, to the lascivious pleasing of a lute. While these lines are being delivered, wouldn't you just know it, a few winsome chords of lute music appear on the soundtrack. This would be the work of Olivier, the lame-ass director. Olivier, the great actor, pauses, as if hearing the lute music, and rolls his eyes with contemptuous disgust, before carrying on. "But I that am not shaped for sportive tricks,/nor made to sport an amorous looking glass, etc."


Tag team hunchbacked evil kings of England


Tag!

Until a few years ago, Olivier's performance was the only generally available film version of Richard III, when suddenly two Richard projects hit the cinemas within a month or two of one another. Like Olivier's version, Al Pacino's "Looking for Richard" gives audiences the opportunity to see how an undeniably great actor shapes up as a film director. Unfortunately, it is nothing to release the fireworks over. "Looking for Richard" is not a staging of the play, but a filmic essay about various aspects of the text that flounders around trying to decide what exactly is its point, or if it has a point, and ends up wandering around like an abandoned dog on the beach. Pacino shows us various scenes from the play as they would be staged in a rehearsal, or on the stage, and I believed until well into the movie that what I was watching was in fact a documentary about a stage production in which he had been involved, until I was disabused by sequences where he was suddenly and inexplicably adopting the play into a made-on-location film.

For me, "Looking for Richard" struggles to recover from its opening sequence, featuring an actor dressed up as William Shakespeare sitting alone in the audience of a theatre. Lameass! Hackneyed! Shortly afterwards, there are shots of Al Pacino, looking great, as always, with his liquid eyes and mane of hair, wandering around doing vox pops. He asks a dozen people or so what they think about Shakey, none of whom have very enlightening opinions. To be fair, if Al Pacino suddenly stopped you in the street and wanted to know what you thought about William Shakespeare, you probably wouldn't have a well-thought-out answer, either. If at the end of the sequence, Pacino had turned to the camera and said he was Al Pacino reporting for Sesame Street news, it would have been OK, but why he thought these scenes would add to his motional picture is a question only Al Pacino can answer.

In between the stupid parts are genuinely interesting sequences. At its best "Looking for Richard" is a documentary about acting and sequences like the one where we watch Pacino try out different readings of the first line of the play, are illuminating for anyone who cares about good acting. There is also an interesting scene at a read-through where we watch the woman who plays Queen Elizabeth persuading the cast that she ought to play the scene as if she was in the grip of hysteria. There is a tendency for actors with small parts in Shakespearian productions to really want to sell themselves. Although the words are usually resonant enough to not require hammer and tongs acting, the temptation for players who aren't going to be speaking all that many lines to win some attention for themselves with what they have appears to be overpowering. Accordingly there is a tendency for productions of Shakespeare to become a screaming match between hoarse bit players. The aforementioned Baz Lurhman version of "Romeo of Juliet" is the aspirin-inducing prize exhibit of this tendency.

I also enjoyed watching an alternative reading of the lines I mentioned before where Richard announces the death of his brother, Clarence. Where Olivier delivered the lines with brisk bonhomie, almost clapping his hands together and rubbing them with glee, Pacino delivers the lines with lugubrious sorrowfulness. Pacino, as one would expect, generally provides both a more melancholy and more neurotic Richard than Olivier. Where Oliver's costumes were in vibrant colour, Pacino's Richard dresses predominantly in black. I don't know whether Pacino intended this or not, but, hell, he is Al Pacino, and he can't get away from the fact that every role he plays is going to cast its shadow onto every other role to some greater or lesser degree, so just having him reciting his lines made me think about the way the homicidal politics of "Richard III" resonates with the casual whacking of rivals and people who stand in your way in Mafia films like "The Godfather".

Personally I like to hear American voices reading Shakespeare, and as the movie moves on, it becomes a matter for regret that instead of getting a full version of the play, "Looking for Richard" only offers glimpses at individual scenes. Kevin Spacey plays Buckingham, and actually wouldn't be a bad choice to play Richard himself, some time in the future, since he looks quite a bit like a famous oil paining of the real king. Alec Baldwin is a poor choice to play the Duke of Clarence, Richard's older brother, since he looks about 15 years younger than Pacino.

Winona Ryder as Lady Anne, however, was a good casting decision. The scene where Richard seduces Anne, on her way to the grave of her husband who has been murdered by Richard, is brilliant. Not only is the language packed with lewd- sounding double entendres (Anne. "Well, well, put up your sword") but it is written to be spoken with an accelerating in-and-out sexual rhythm. Unfortunately, in Olivier's version, the scene is fatally compromised by the staginess of the production, so that when Claire Bloom supposedly spits at Olivier, no actual attempt at expectoration is made. Winona Ryder handles her lines really well, and altogether looks as if she would have been really good in the part, although, in a genuine production of "Richard III," the company's wardrobe department might have been somewhat diminished by the end of the run. Meanwhile, the payoff to the scene, where Pacino adjusts his baseball cap as if it were a crown while saying, "I'll have her but will not keep her long" is worth the price of the rental all by itself.


Dude, where's my horse?


Tag!

There is no doubt, however, that the top version of "Richard III" is Richard Loncraine's version. I can remember sitting in the cinema when it came out, when I knew nothing more about the film than that it was the latest version of "Richard III" and how I just broke into a big cheesy Tom-Cruise grin as I watched the opening scene of a tickertape message from Tewksbury Field, then saw the gas-masked military figures bursting through the wall in a tank, and one of them executing Lady Anne's husband with a pistol and then pulling his gas mask off to reveal Ian McKellan. At last! Even before a word of dialogue had been spoken, it was clear that here was a Shakespeare movie where the images were going to be at least half as interesting as the words. The next scene begins with a swing combo possessing that syrupy feel peculiar to 1930s British swing bands playing "Come Live With Me and Be My Love" at some sort of palace reception. Instead of being a monologue, "The winter of our discontent" speech is begun by Richard taking over the microphone and addressing the assembled toffs in an amiable I-will-be-your-master-of-ceremonies-tonight kind of way. Then, when he reaches the crux of his speech, and as it continues on the voice track with no break in the flow of iambic pentameter, there is an cut-away to Richard entering the toilet, and giving us the "lascivious pleasings of a lute" lines as he urinates, then washing his hands through the rest of the speech, looking into the bathroom mirror as he says "But I that am not shaped for sportive tricks,/nor made to sport an amorous looking glass, etc." Brilliant. That is cinema!

Having talked about how good Olivier and Pacino are, puts the pressure on to Ian McKellan, but I am pleased to say he is a very, very good Richard. Although he was much better known as a stage actor than as a film actor at the time the movie was made, and although the movie is an adaptation of a stage production, his performance is perfectly judged to the scale of the screen. If he dominates proceedings less than Olivier, this just means the film works better as an ensemble piece. Because all of the actors either have been told or have worked out for themselves that it is counterproductive to holler their way through their parts, just about everybody produces performances of quiet efficiency. The touch of making Queen Elizabeth and her family into Americans allows the movie to cash in on the box office potential of featuring stars like Annette Bening and Robert Downey Jnr. It is also a nice period detail in terms of the 1930s setting because of the echoes of England's last reputedly fascist-sympathising king, Edward VIII, and his attachment to Mrs Wallace-Simpson; and makes the resentment felt at court towards the Rivers' family instantly comprehensible.


Annette Bening as Queen Elizabeth


Angelina Jolie's audition for the part

Kristen Scott Thomas is a more languid Lady Anne than Claire Bloom or Winona Ryder, but the setting for the seduction scene, around the table on which her husband is about to be dissected, is genuinely macabre. The filmmakers have inserted a number of sequences into the storyline that Shakespeare neglected to write, where the subsequent fate of Lady Anne is made manifest. The shots of her declining into heroin addiction are not accompanied by dialogue on her part, but are perfectly legitimate pieces of business.


I always feel a bit out of focus until I have my first cigarette for the day. A light! A light! My kingdom for a zippo! You are probably just dying for some smack, eh?

The movie is full of 1930s iconography, and I may as well admit that for me one of the pleasures of the movie was just looking at all the cars and clothes and machinery and interior decoration from that time. While undoubtedly a troubled period, what with the rise of Fascism in Europe, the worst excesses of Stalinism leading to millions of needless deaths in the Soviet Union, America in economic collapse, Asia in turmoil, etc etc, the 1930s was a stylish looking time. I believe this version of "Richard III" has some specific points to make about the possibility of English Fascism occurring at this time (certainly, many influential people in English public life had varying degrees of sympathy towards this hideous ideology), but I also think these points can all be safely ignored, if favour of reading the setting of the movie simply as a comment on the universal nature of tyranny.

In the end, "Richard III" is an exploration of the nature of tyranny. Some historians have argued that the death of the real Richard III marked the end of the medieval period where everybody believed in the control of God; and signalled the arrival of the doubt and curiosity characteristic of the Renaissance. In fact, what strikes the modern reader/watcher confronted with Shakespeare's villain is that Richard cuts a very modern figure. "Richard III" could be plausibly staged in a cave in Afghanistan; or in a bunker in Iraq; or in the boardroom of a multinational company; or it could be staged in the Oval Office of the White House. Or could it? Happily, in the developed world we live in an age where our acceptance of democratic principles, and the vastly greater amounts of information that we have available to us than previous generations, help to ensure the preservation of important freedoms. Most importantly, perhaps, we enjoy a freedom from ignorance. Richard III's subjects were ill-informed and credulous enough to believe in stuff that no sophisticated person today could possibly take seriously. Click here to see lewd and steamy photographs of Diana, the Princess of of Wales , discussing "country matters" with a horny and willing "Posh Spice." Don't delay as Victoria Beckam's lawyers will quickly move to have these images removed from the internet. These images are 100% lewd. Tfglmxtn!!! Richard III is a base character at the very start of Shakespeare's play. He wants power. He gets it. It is not a tragedy, because a tragedy is the story of a good man bought down. I don't know if there is a name for stories about badass dudes rising to the top, then being brought down, but if there is a name for this genre, Richard III is an example of it. There is no reason presented for his evil-doing, beyond his desire, stated in the opening monologue of the play, to prove himself a villain. Although he ends up being willing to swap his kingdom for a horse, at some point before the action of the play begins, he had clearly swapped his conscience for the prospect of a kingdom. Would to God the world wasn't still filled with people who have made the same bargain, but it is. If we are not careful, they are our leaders.

Mickey
mickey@whatever-dude.com

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