“Conscience is but a word that cowards use. Devised at first to keep the strong in awe.”
— Richard III Act V, scene iii
Is lusting for power ever acceptable? When do the ends justify the means? To what extent does fate control our actions? These are questions that we ask of ourselves during every production of William Shakespeare’s “Richard III.” The ongoing production at the Theater in the Round near the University of Minnesota’s West Bank sticks to the tried and true methods of producing this play with few changes.
“Richard III” is a story of a hunger for power that is all too common in history and politics. After a major internal struggle for the English throne, Richard’s family ends up victorious. His father, the son of York, has risen to the throne. Richard’s brother, Clarence, is the confirmed heir. To seize power Richard must ensure all other heirs are dead. The ensuing play is one of deceit, betrayal and cool calculation, all taking place in the apex of English power. This play is Shakespeare’s second longest, and the cuts to the original are very well-chosen to keep to the central struggle for power.
In most productions, Richard is much like Frank Underwood from “House of Cards” (a protagonist who does terrible things, yet we side with them throughout the performance). Often, like Frank, we see Richard’s darker side emphasized by his asides and carefully calculated actions. After watching “Richard the III” you almost feel evil yourself, for rooting for the success of such a tyrant or for casually watching the deaths of children who stand in Richard’s way.
However, the Theater in the Round presented Richard (played by Lucas Gerstner, a Macalester alumnus) in a more ordinary light. He isn’t dressed as a totalitarian dictator as Ian McKellan would have it, but as an ordinary man in a suit. His hunchback is even more subtle than most I’ve seen. He never seems to have malice in his eyes nor poor intentions for the sake of entertainment. Instead he is subtle with his aims throughout the play. We never see the devil pop out unexpectedly, instead Richard seems to be a regular man resigned to his fate.
It is crucial to note that Richard the III is the final part of a tetralogy about England’s Wars of the Roses. The previous plays set up the characters up for failure. The murder of King Richard II was an upset to the traditional order, and God would have his revenge upon those who looked to find gain in the aftermath of his death.Queen Margaret (played wonderfully by Meri Golden) was the matriarch of the defeated house. Throughout the play, she reminds Richard and his family of the wrongs they did to her bloodline and curses them. This production did an excellent job of emphasizing to the audience the power of fate, by keeping Margaret subtly present or eavesdropping during important scenes. Her haunting premonitions keep coming true and tear the ruling family apart.
The issue I took with the production was that it was a 1920s period piece. It seemed the play wasn’t timeless but lost in time — there didn’t seem to be anything new or interesting that this concept added to the overall play. This often conflicted with the more medieval sound choices and swordplay. Considering the play’s main theme was fate, it doesn’t make a lot of sense that it is set at the beginning of a century of individualist and existential thought.
In all, “Richard III” at the Theater in the Round provided me with a unique take on an unforgetable story. By bringing Queen Margaret into the spotlight and keeping Richard in the shadows I realized the play isn’t driven so much by one man’s thirst for power, but by his actions towards others and the enemies he made (notably among them, God). It’s worth seeing this take on the story of “Richard III,” March 4th and 5th at 8:00 p.m. and March 6th at 2:00 p.m. at the Theater in the Round, four minutes from the West Bank light rail station.