1992 | Acting Richard III

From the programme for the US Tour

Richard Burbage, the actor-manager who first played William Shakespeare's heroes, had his earliest triumph as Richard III. After one performance in London 400 years ago, he made an assignation with a female fan. However, Shakespeare got to her first and, when Burbage arrived late, saying. "It's me, Richard III". Shakespeare retorted from behind the bedroom door, "William the Conqueror came before Richard III!"

Theatre gossip can't always be trusted but perhaps we can guess that the first Richard III gave a sexy, crowd-pleasing performance. The remains of the Rose and Globe Theatres, recently excavated just along from the National Theatre on the South Bank of the River Thames, show that the open-air Elizabethan playhouses were more intimate than our large modern auditoria. Burbage would have been able to make eye-contact with the individuals in thee crowd, standing on the sloping floor in the afternoon sunshine. It is certainly appealing when a leading character like King Richard, Prince Hamlet or Ancient Iago, talks directly to the audience in soliloquy. In these monologues, however deceitful and scheming a character may be within the play. he never lies to the audience. Richard opens the play with a disarmingly honest confession. He invites your sympathy and also makes you smile.

It is no wonder that the part has attracted so many actors who enjoy playing up to an audience, nor that the play has thereby retained its popularity worldwide. Shakespeare's stage version of Richard has erased the history of the real king, who was, by comparison, a model of probity. Canny Shakespeare may well have conformed to the propaganda of the Tudor Dynasty, Queen Elizabeth I's grandfather having slain Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth. Shakespeare was not writing nor rewriting history. He was building on his success as thee young playwright of the Henry VI trilogy, some of whose monstrously self-willed men and women recur in Richard III. But this play he called "The Tragedy" and it stands alone.

Richard is his first complex portrayal of the lone, ambitious fighter. Throughout the canon, Shakespeare is fascinated by all ranks in the soldiery when they are off-duty and idle, from Othello to Much Ado About Nothing. But in Macbeth, Coriolanus and Richard III, he examines great soldiers who fail to adapt their solo battling prowess on the alien field of civilian politics.

In Richard III, he presents not a whole society but an inner group of power-brokers and their intimates. We meet the military, the ecclesiastics, the politicians, the civil servants. the businessmen, and the men and women of the Royal Family. To clarify this complex, social hierarchy of upper-class mediaeval England, our production places the action in a 20th-century setting. This was Shakespeare's own approach — the original productions were invariably in contemporary dress.

Along the corridors of power, limps the tragic Richard. From birth, his enemies have mocked his deformity and his mother has hated him for it. He doesn't seem to be the sort to flount his handicaps — we have broken with the tradition of Richard as jolly villain. Nor is it helpful to the actor when academics catalogue this loveless, unlovable man as "the embodiment of evil". Our times have elevated enough emotionally disturbed tyrants for us to recognise the parallels in Shakespeare.

Richard III is one of Shakespeare's longest plays. We have omitted some of the text and one or two minor characters. A number of the cast play more than one role. Cutting and doubling were common practice in Shakespeare's theatre. These days, British stage actors honour hiss words and the rhythms of his verse. By definition, the audience listen as much as they look.

Our production is not an adaptation — nor even an interpretation. We hope, above all, to present the story clearly, so that you are free to have your own individual response, to be amused and to be thrilled and to rediscover why, through four centuries, Richard III is one of Shakespeare's most enduringly popular plays. — Ian McKellen, 1992

Ian McKellen as Richard III

More Writings

Ian McKellen's Home Page