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King Richard the Third
By William Shakespeare
Belasco Theatre
111 W. 44th St.
Box office: (212) 239-6200

Shakespeare’s Richard III is usually played as a monstrous villain: a sneering, deformed, conniving wretch who mercilessly slaughters his way to the crown. Al Pacino, Kevin Spacey and countless others have plied this lurid road to great acclaim, creating viciously criminal figures whose evil we enjoy reveling in. Richard III has thus been historically popularized as a genre play: a high-art variation on the slasher tale. Mark Rylance’s portrayal of Richard as a weak, underconfident and clownish dweeb may well disconcert some theatergoers, then. His Richard is a simpering, passive-aggressive pariah with a grotesquely shriveled hand and a penchant for laughing at his own jokes when no one else does. He is clearly driven mainly by thirst for revenge against those who wounded and mocked him in childhood, employing ineptitude and bumbling as masks for malice and ambition. These masks are particularly diabolical in that they fool us too much of the time.

Whatever Rylance’s performance may lack in creepiness it makes up in limpid clarity. I cannot remember another production where the character’s motivations were so patiently explored. And apart from that lead performance, one result of this is that many of the play’s other intentions and relationships also become unusually lucid. Originally directed by Tim Carroll at Shakespeare’s Globe in London, this is an antiquarian production that utilizes male actors in the female roles, historically accurate Elizabethan costumes and music, and a wooden replica of a private theater interior on the stage. The emphasis on historical accuracy, it must be said, gives the physical staging a somewhat plodding feel, but it also sets a tone of thoughtful inquiry. It's a credit to the actors’ intelligence and focus that one listens so closely to numerous speeches that other productions either cut or race through in a rush to the next burst of violence. How’s your memory of, say, Clarence’s narration of his dream in the Tower, or Hastings’s speech about fleeing a boar, or Richmond’s Act V speeches in his army camp? All of this and more one follows alertly and excitedly here, as if for the first time.



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