Shakespeare's Richard III is the quintessential story of power-lust, of a man willing to murder his relatives, betray his supporters and shed any amount of blood to acquire the crown of England. While Macbeth took us inside the villain's psyche and made us understand both his craziness and his grief, this is a history play, not a tragedy, so there's almost no introspection. Richard remains inscrutable — except that we do know he enjoys his work — as around him unfurls a tapestry of courtly life: lords and ladies, a pair of doomed children, people whose lives have been crippled by centuries of war, every one of them praying Richard III will achieve a natural and non-violent death.
What feeling you take away from all this depends largely on how the central figure is played. Olivier made Richard funny in a sneering, ironic way, a glittering black snake who used language like a weapon — sometimes a rough-edged cudgel ("Fight, gentlemen of England. Let us to it pell-mell. If not to heaven, then hand in hand to hell") and sometimes a whip sharp-edged with diamonds. We somehow empathized with him, though we were ashamed of it, until he went off the deep end completely, murdering the little princes and becoming more and more carelessly and stupidly violent. In contemporary versions, Richard is often placed on a swastika-festooned set and portrayed as an almost supernatural figure, one of those lurid, masked fighters who stalk through futuristic movies. These Richards aren't remotely frightening; they're a comic-strip version of evil. We all know that real evil is rarely self-advertising; it lurks behind the smooth handshake of a businessman, the bluff affability of a politician, the lofty intellectualism of a statesman.
In this Denver Center Theatre Company production, Andrew Long takes his cue from Olivier and makes Richard funny, but it's not the same precise, sharp-edged funny. His eyes don't pierce; his speech isn't a killing instrument; he's not magnetic, and he doesn't command a room the way Olivier did. In fact, he's a bit mush-mouthed, a comic fumbler, the kind of guy who might get you laughing in a nightclub because his shtick is so low-key and ordinary that you feel a bit sorry for him. Except that he happens to be drowning the world in blood.
I have a couple of cavils with this interpretation: for example, Richard's wooing of Lady Anne is so insincere that when she acquiesces, you wonder if the poor woman is actually simple-minded. But there's a lot that's right here, too. The performance is specific and original, and it shifts the focus in interesting ways, so that you find you're really listening to lines you've heard a thousand times before and noticing characters you've always ignored as peripheral. Your attention moves from Richard to those others and back again, then wanders into odd little corners of the play you've never explored before.
This is a version that keeps fear at arm's length, despite the fact that director Jesse Berger has every gruesome killing — from that of the Duke of Clarence to the murder of Lady Anne (a particularly grotesque piece of business) — committed right in front of our eyes. Apparently unwilling to prettify violence, Berger even leaves out Tyrell's lyrical and repentant speech on the death of the little princes: "Their lips were four red roses on a stalk, that in their summer beauty kissed each other." But there is a deep sadness here, and, surprisingly, you feel it most in the women's lamentation scenes — which are usually just boring interludes. The ever-cursing Margaret, whom I've often seen played as witch-like and demonic, is made a real woman by Jeanne Paulsen, twisted by an almost unimaginable rage and grief. As Elizabeth, Kathleen McCall morphs from an anxious but dignified queen to a woman aged and hollowed out by the death of her young sons. And Kathleen M. Brady has the complex task of mourning sons whom she knows have committed atrocities, sons she both loves and loathes. It's in the work of these terrific actresses that the heart of the production lies.
All of the technical elements — set, sound and lighting — are excellent, though the silvery material used in some of the costumes looks flimsily synthetic. The work of dramaturgs tends to be invisible, but Scott Horstein has made intelligent line cuts and retained often-eliminated moments, giving us a clearer-than-usual sense of the play's unity and contour. Although I have quarrels with some of DCTC artistic director Kent Thompson's decisions, Denver's definitely getting far more sophisticated Shakespeare since he arrived.