What’s at stake in “Richard III”? Only a crown, a kingdom and the lives of all those standing in the way of Richard’s murderous route to the throne. I mention this because you’d never guess it from Tim Carroll’s arid, tension-free production at Shakespeare’s Globe. Mark Rylance’s matchless career has been ignited by audacious, wildly inventive interpretations of Shakespeare roles from Benedick to Hamlet. His alarmingly solipsistic turn as Richard III is nowhere near as powerful.
Even though this staging runs half an hour shorter than the recent Sam Mendes/Kevin Spacey “Bridge Project” production, Carroll’s neatly trimmed text feels labored since it so flagrantly lacks dramatic development. One of the Globe’s “original practices” productions — i.e., an all-male cast in period-style costumes, with period music and little or no set — this “Richard III” scores highly for initial mood via Jenny Tiramani’s sumptuous Tudor-style costumes. However, vigorous illumination of language and, crucially, interaction between the characters is almost entirely absent.
One of Rylance’s greatest strengths is his ease with language and his ability to play directly to audiences, notably the crowds who stand and wrap the edges of the Globe stage. His Richard happily ditches oratory for an overwhelmingly conversational, comic tone. But that ruminative manner goes only so far. It illustrates the character’s thought processes and, literally, plays to the gallery in terms of confiding in the audience. But outside of soliloquies and asides, it robs the character of weight, dynamism, authority and status about the court.
In fact, his idiosyncratic version of what Richmond (James Garnon) calls a “bloody tyrant and a homicide” is most viciously frightening when off the text. Like McKellen’s “Richard III” onstage and screen, this is a one-armed performance, his left arm hidden beneath his costume and replaced by a withered hand. When a character has the temerity to touch it, Rylance screams not the lines offered but interpolated invective of his own. That kind of addition would be fine in a non-“authentic”-style production. Here it’s jarring.
It further underlines the sensation that this is akin to a solo show with a rudderless rest-of-play loosely attached. Because Rylance so rarely serves the ball to the other actors, it’s a miracle that Samuel Barnett emerges so strongly as Queen Elizabeth, particularly in the scene in which Richard persuades Elizabeth he should marry her daughter. Calmly erect at all times, Barnett plays a monarch rather than a woman. His stand-out performance effortlessly conveys the condescension of immense status and power. Contrast that with Johnny Flynn’s dismaying Lady Anne — blank inexpressiveness delivered in a high-pitched voice that sounds entirely disconnected.
In fairness, Richard III is a better role than it is a play, the action more of a chronicle than a plot of tension and release. But that being the case, there’s a real burden on the director to clarify the story. Here, far too many of the supporting actors look stranded and remote in a physical staging with stolid blocking that grows dangerously repetitive. Anyone coming new to the play is unlikely to be able to follow Richard’s progress.
By the time this disappointing production moves to its pre-booked West End berth in November, Rylance and his director will need to up their game considerably.