Richard III | Frequently Asked Questions
WHY IS THE FILM SET IN THE 1930s?
As with Hamlet, Macbeth, Coriolanus, Twelfth Night, Othello and all the other Shakespeare I've most enjoyed doing onstage and screen, Richard III was staged in a modern setting for the National Theatre's production , directed by Richard Eyre and designed by Bob Crowley. It's the same in the film.
Richard III is not a documentary about the man on whose life it is based. If Shakespeare accepted the Tudor propaganda of the hunchback monster, he nevertheless called his own version The Tragedy of Richard III and then wrote a drama not a history lesson. To direct the audience away from history and toward the events and themes of the play as far as they were relevant to their own lives, the original production would have been performed in contemporary, Elizabethan dress. Historical "authenticity" of costume and setting only became fashionable in the theatre of the Victorians, with their interest in things mediaeval.
The crucial advantage of a modern setting is clarity of story-telling. It is impossibly confusing to try and distinguish between a multitude of characters who are all done up in floppy hats and wrinkled tights. Richard III has a long, complex cast-list but it is not a pageant. It analyses an inner grouping of powerful and would-be powerful players. The political detail of the story cannot clearly unfold, unless each of these characters can be readily identified by profession and social status. The audience needs to be able to recognise who is royalty, aristocrat, commoner and who is politician, civil servant, military. By their clothes, you shall know them.
Ideally I should have preferred to set the movie in 1996. But we couldn't expect our audience to imagine Richard III happening in present-day England: that would have only parodied current affairs. The historical events of the play had occurred only a couple of generations before the first audience saw them dramatised. The comparable period for us would be the 1930s. It was close enough for no-one to think we were identifying the plot of the play with actual events, any more than Shakespeare was writing about the real King Richard. He was writing "history-which-never-happened". Our production was properly in the realm of "what might have been". Also, the '30s were appropriately a decade of tyranny throughout Europe, the most recent time when a dictatorship like Richard III's might have overtaken the United Kingdom, as it had done in Germany, Italy, Spain and the empire of the Soviet Union.
In the end, we have only "borrowed" the 1930s — there are no scenes played on the telephone, for example. Similarly the London of the film is not "real London" — the world of the 30's and of London is no more "accurate" than Shakespeare's use of the hiostorical events on which he bases his fictionalised version.
DID YOU CHANGE SHAKESPEARE'S WORDS?
Yes, a little, e.g. all the "thee's" and "thou's" have been changed to "you's". A very few other archaisms have been adjusted so as not to puzzle the modern ear, e.g. "What you have been before and what you are." In the play, this reads: "What you have been ere this and what you are; Withal, what I have been and what I am."
I am prepared for the accusation of being patronising. When Maggie Smith and I were in Much Ado About Nothing for the National Theatre (1966), Robert Graves was credited under Shakespeare in the programme for the synonyms he had substituted for some of the more obscure vocabulary. Graves was lambasted by those drama critics who felt that a crucial part of the experience of seeing and hearing Shakespeare was in measuring up to the difficulties, rather than in side-stepping them. Nevertheless, I have often since clarified Elizabethan texts in performance, eg I always say "instantly" instead of "presently", whose meaning has reversed itself over the last 400 years. No one has yet complained. Perhaps it is only an offence to alter Shakespeare if you confess to it!
HOW DID YOU DECIDE WHAT TO CUT FROM THE PLAY?
Mixing words and pictures, the screen has its own language. So, in adapting Richard III I was translating. Translation is an inexact art, carrying responsibilities to respect the author's ends, even as you wilfully tamper with the means. I hadn't asked for Shakespeare's permission to fashion a film from his play. The least I could do was, change by change, cut by cut, ask myself whether he would have approved. I am used to this discipline. In rehearsing Shakespeare, I puzzle over the complexities of his verse and prose, its ambiguities and subtleties. Not having him present to consult, I think of his having just left the rehearsal-room, soon to return with the gentle query I've sometimes heard from living playwrights: "What the hell do you think you're doing to my play?" There is always the justification that despite one's amendments, the "full text" will remain intact in any Collected Plays for the next fool to try and measure up to.
The most obvious difference between a cinema version of Shakespeare is in the number of words retained from the original play. Most cinema-owners want 100-minute movies, that get more showings per day. It is not just a matter of time. Romeo and Juliet is now thought to be a very long play: yet its Chorus refers to "the two hours' traffic of our stage". Elizabethan actors, playing in small auditoria, would have spoken more quickly than we do today, in deference to their audience, most of whom were standing. In a two-hour talkie, even talking fast, you might just get through two-thirds of Richard III, one of the longest plays Shakespeare wrote. A theatre audience, by definition, ought to listen before it looks. Unlike Shakespeare's groundlings, a cinema audience would not stand for it!
As in Richard Eyre's stage version, the first draft of the screenplay cut some characters and handed over a few of their lines to other characters. This threw emphasis and clarity onto the main action. If it is thought by those who know the play well, that I have gone too far in not explaining, for example, how exactly Richard persuades King Edward to imprison their brother Clarence, I am not sure that Shakespeare did much better in what I excised from Act One Scene 1!
I combed through the entire text to shorten it but without losing any of the detailed development of plot or character. Some reduction of the play's verbal impact was inevitable but much less damaging than in, say, Macbeth, where every poetical line is interdependent on the rest. The verse and language of Richard III, a much earlier play, are less dense than in the great tragedies.
WHY DOES RICHARD III TALK TO THE CAMERA?
Speaking directly to the audience is a powerful asset which Shakespeare generally reserves for his leading characters. Without it, the audience might find it hard to engage sympathetically with Richard III who is so bent on ill-doings. Similarly the troubled and troublesome inner natures of Iago, Leontes, and Macbeth are revealed in their soliloquies.
In the theatre, audiences welcome a character who steps out of the action of the play to address them, whether in Shakespeare, a pantomime or a musical. On the television screen, talking heads are so familiar that a Shakespeare soliloquy works well. The rule of traditional film-making is that actors should never look at the camera — a convention which is riskier to break through than the fourth wall of a proscenium stage. I never doubted that I should challenge the naturalism of cinema by talking to the camera, as Olivier did in Richard III, although not in Hamlet; and as Branagh does as Iago, although not as Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing.