Now is the summer of our discontent. With the opening of Richard III, arguably the most tragic – and most violent – of the Bard’s history plays, the 2012 Shakespeare Festival at the Old Globe is under way. The crippled, homicidal Richard is one of the most despicable characters in Shakespeare’s canon, but also one of the most fascinating in his tirades and deviously inspired machinations. In the hands of Jay Whittaker, this Richard is a scowling, at times shrill, menace, moving like a virus through the House of York. Whittaker’s portrayal is tireless, undermined only by a first-act costume that makes him look like “Star Wars’” C3PO. While Henry, Earl of Richmond (Dan Amboyer), is his battlefield antagonist, Richard’s most arresting foil is the flailing Queen Margaret (Robin Moseley). Ultimately, Richard’s conscience is undone and his fate decreed by the ghosts of those he has slaughtered, a shadowy sequence accomplished on the Lowell Davies Festival Theatre stage with haunting resonance.
This staging’s more contemporary trappings (graffiti’d walls, posters plastered with warplanes and missiles, gun-toting soldiers, videographers) quicken the pace and deepen the psychology of Richard’s ambition and malevolence. There’s a lack of continuity in the costuming, however, which dresses some characters in more traditional robes while others, like Queen Elizabeth (Dana Green), look as if clad for an opening-night cocktail party.
The sonorous Robert Farnsworth is a dignified presence as the defiant Lord Hastings, and Jacques C. Smith is stalwart and sympathetic as the Duke of Buckingham, the cousin and initial ally who sees Richard for his true colors, and dies for it.
The first act of Richard III, running over an hour and a half and a bit long for sustained tension, is dominated by the histrionics of the scheming hunchback who would be king and by the shock and awe of those victimized by his deadly agenda. The more swiftly paced Act 2 culminates with a brief but exciting battle scene, the gunfire of which echoes in the trees surrounding the outdoor Lowell Davies stage. For the doomed Richard, war is hell and what lies in its wake is likely to be more of the same.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.