As is usually the case with English history according to William Shakespeare, the crown is a much-contested object in “Richard III.” But in the Druid company’s visually transfixing production of this grisly tragedy, part of the White Light Festival at Lincoln Center, there’s no doubt at all as to who rules the unhappy land in which it is set.
It’s not the fiendish title character, played here with uncanny athleticism by Aaron Monaghan, nor any of his many royal relatives and rivals, all those frantically competitive Henrys and Edwards. To see who’s really the monarch here, just take a look at that skull in the transparent box suspended over the stage. Where we are, incontestably, is the Kingdom of Death.
Cast your eyes downward, to the front and center of the stage and you’ll see an open grave, waiting to receive all and sundry. It is from this hole that the diabolical Richard first scrambles into view, eyes gleaming and smile atilt, to carry out his duties as Death’s dispatcher in chief in this poetically exact interpretation of “Richard III” by Garry Hynes.
The memento mori approach to Shakespeare served Hynes and Ireland’s Druid company very well indeed for its seven-hour omnibus production of four of the canon’s history plays (“Richard II,” both parts of “Henry IV,” and “Henry V”). Seen at Lincoln Center four years ago, that marathon of civil warfare seemed to fly like a speeding musket ball, leaving audiences exhausted and exhilarated.
The company’s “Richard III,” which runs through Nov. 23 at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater, deploys much of the same team, including its invaluable set and costume designer, Francis O’Connor, and several of its leading performers. Monaghan showed up at that time as both a one-man chorus and a gravedigger, which in the world of those plays were more or less the same.
Yet while the Druid “Richard III” is hypnotically watchable, it seldom engages the emotions. Emphasizing the bleak canvas over the doomed souls who populate it, the show is more chilly than chilling. It has the aura of a morbidly picturesque fairy tale, with Monaghan’s compact, sprightly and inexhaustible Richard bringing to mind one of the vengeful, quick-tempered gnomes common to such stories. He’s Richard as Rumpelstiltskin.
Creating a “Richard III” (and a Richard III) of compelling originality is no easy task these days. The play has become incredibly popular in our age of unheroic leadership. By my count, I’ve seen at least seven versions in the past decades, with stars who include Kevin Spacey, Ralph Fiennes, Martin Freeman, John Douglas Thompson and — the most disturbing of the lot — the German actor Lars Eidinger.
Monaghan brings his own distinctive physicality to the role of Shakespeare’s most unloved and unloving character. This is an actor who last year transformed Samuel Beckett’s enervated Gogo, from the Druid’s “Waiting for Godot,” into the human equivalent of a pogo stick. His Richard, with his twisted right leg and kinked shoulders, stays closer to the earth.
But he’s still a perpetual motion machine. He propels himself forward at sharp, aggressive angles with the help of two sticks, which he also uses to gesticulate and even to embrace others, enfolding them into an instant prison. He is not above using his mangled form for sympathy either, falling woefully to the ground during scenes of courtship (of the widowed Lady Anne, played by Siobhan Cullen) and family council.
His voice pipes like a steaming teakettle when he’s angry and occasionally drops to a creepy bass as he issues orders to kill. But he feels more like an avatar of a bleak and ruthless world than a conscious individual who has internalized that world’s cruelty. He’s just one player, albeit the flashiest of the lot, in a predetermined game, and it’s hard to feel either scared of or in unwilling cahoots with him, when he confides in the audience.
All the 13 cast members speak with merciful clarity and directness, so you’re rarely in doubt as to who’s who and why they behave as they do. Playing Richard’s suave co-conspirator, the “deep-revolving witty Buckingham,” Rory Nolan provides a sharply observed portrait of political unctuousness. And I admired Marty Rea’s pain-steeped, lyrical portrayal of Richard’s helpless pawn of a brother, Clarence.
If few of them register as completely drawn characters, it must be said that each of the ensemble members belongs organically to same, darkly written page. They tend to move as if they might keel over at any minute, a feeling compounded by O’Connor’s rich, deliberately cumbersome, neo-Elizabethan costumes, in which women’s full skirts seem shaped by overgrown tumors and the men are weighed down by their glittering capes.
Lighted like a morgue by James F. Ingalls, O’Connor’s set suggests a concrete-walled slaughterhouse. And Richard’s all-purpose executioner (Catesby in this version, played by a bowler-hatted Rea) appropriately kills his victims with a captive bolt pistol, an instrument used to stun livestock (and memorably wielded by Javier Bardem in the film “No Country for Old Men”).
It’s indicative of Hynes’s cosmic view that the first figure we see onstage is not, for once, Richard. It’s a veiled, crouched, scarcely human figure who turns out to be the doom-saying, grief-maddened, prophetic Queen Margaret (played by that fine, Tony-winning actress Marie Mullen).
Even more than Richard, it’s Margaret who’s the soul of this world, and the character who’s most conscious of its grim fatalism. That low, staggering walk with which she makes her entrance is that of someone pulled downward by the gravity exerted by the universal grave. Hers is the default posture of the entire production.
DruidShakespeare: Richard III
Tickets Through Nov. 23 at Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College, Manhattan; 212-721-6500, lincolncenter.org. Running time: 3 hours.