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Stratford Festival’s ‘Richard III’ proves that everything old is new again

Stratford Festival’s ‘Richard III’ proves that everything old is new again

Stratford Festival’s ‘Richard III’ proves that everything old is new again

Richard III

By William Shakespeare, directed by Antoni Cimolino. Until Oct. 30 at the Tom Patterson Theatre, 111 Lakeside Dr, Stratford. and 1-800-567-1600.

In keeping with the 2022 Stratford Festival’s theme of new beginnings, “Richard III” underlines the cycles of life: that endings echo in every start, and that everything fresh will eventually be eclipsed by something new.

The first production to open in the long-awaited, utterly spectacular Tom Patterson Theatre, “Richard III” was also the play that opened the festival in 1953. As before, the production is a showcase for a great actor in a star turn: Alec Guinness then, Colm Feore now.

The production retains its historical setting in the 15th century, but is framed by scenes set in the present, underlining the continuity of questions about royal legitimacy.

It’s apt that the festival’s marketing for the show nods at the HBO series “Succession”: The substance of the play is the ongoing shifts of power and trust as Richard, Duke of Gloucester (Feore) connives and maneuvers his way toward becoming king. This becomes such a constant churn that it’s darkly comic at the same time as it’s awful — a complicated balance of tone that director Antoni Cimolino and the cast led by Feore handle skilfully.

The contemporary frame for the show references the discovery 10 years ago of the remains of the real-life Richard III near Leicester, England: the production starts around the excavation site and allows for a dramatic entrance for Feore, literally emerging from the underworld.

There are numerous references in the text to Richard having physical differences, and as Cimolino points out in a program note, the discovery of his bones confirmed that the real-life figure had extreme scoliosis. The production centers this: Francesca Callow’s costume design for Richard curves the lacing up the back of his doublet to indicate twists in his spine, and Feore performs the character with a stiff, bent leg that gives him a lurching, swinging walk.

Having lived his life responding to others dismissing him because of his physicality is evidently at the center of Feore’s characterization: His amorality and lust for power stem from a bitterness that comes from being constantly discounted.

His character spends a lot of time talking directly to the audience (starting with the famous line “Now is the winter of our discontent …”) and for me the heart of the show was the challenge these addresses pose. Feore’s Richard has enormous charisma and frequently invites us to cackle with him as he plots the next outrageous power grab — but then I caught myself, wondering how I could be captivated by someone so evil.

As much as I admired Feore’s performance, it did lead me to wonder if this will be the last able-bodied actor making a star turn as a disabled character on the Stratford stage, given crucial conversations currently happening around Deaf and disability performance.

Certainly, this production feels like everything old is new again in terms of the festival’s unparalleled capacity for pageantry, with more than two dozen actors onstage and one gorgeous piece of staging giving way to another elegantly and efficiently (set design is by Callow, with lighting by Michael Walton). The design of the auditorium, with seats wrapped three-quarters of the way around an extended thrust stage, allows for an intimate relationship to the action, and the acoustics from my vantage point was superb.

The first act charts Richard’s maneuvers to take over the throne, starting with having his own brother (Michael Blake) executed and seducing the widowed Lady Anne (Jessica B. Hill) on the way to her own father-in-law’s funeral.

In a pivotal, beautifully calibrated scene, Richard turns on his previous ally Hastings (Ben Carlson) and then successfully plots to capture and kill the young prince and duke who stand in his way to power. From that point on, the question of Richard’s motivation becomes increasingly moot as everyone waits tensely to see who he’s going to turn on next. The second-act intrigue is effectively intercut with scenes of anguished commentary by Queen Elizabeth (Lucy Peacock) and Queen Margaret (Seana McKenna).

Despite the strong pace, it does take some stamina to get through to the climactic battle scene, and a final flourish set in the present happens so quickly that it may leave audiences scratching their heads.


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