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Stratford: A gender-bending Richard adds a level of irony

Seana McKenna, foreground, as King Richard and Wayne Best as the Duke of Buckingham in the Stratford production of Richard III.

Stratford Shakespeare Festival / David Hou Photographer 2011/David Hou

2.5 out of 4 stars

Richard III has always been a tricky play to classify. It's a history play with a skewed take on history; though sometimes labelled as a tragedy, it abounds with dark comedy; and its hero is also its antagonist. Given the confusion of genre, perhaps a gender-bending production was only logical.

In director Miles Potter's latest version at Stratford, the twist is that festival favourite Seana McKenna takes on the title role. Wearing a wig of long, thinning hair and an enormous bump on her back, McKenna is a gleeful goblin of a villain, happily murdering and conniving his way to the throne.

Her Richard III certainly identifies - and is an identified - as a man. The only vestigial sign of his performer's sex is a voice pitched unusually high. While we're used to rumbling, resonant Richards, it is more than plausible that in addition to his more famous deformities - the limp, the shrivelled left arm, the posture problem - he might have had vocal problems as well and, perhaps, even been rudely stamped with an undescended organ or two. In short, McKenna's Richard III is entirely plausible - even if the production he inhabits loses energy and focus as it goes along.

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Though not specifically highlighted, there is a pleasing, extra level of irony added to certain lines, as when Richard tells his brother Clarence, who is being sent off to the Tower by his own scheming, that their sister-in-law, the king's wife, is to blame: "Why, this it is, when men are ruled by women."

What's more immediately unsettling to audiences familiar with the work than a woman as Richard is that this production does not begin with the famous ironic soliloquy, "Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York."

Instead, it kicks off with a quick glimpse of Richard's brother King Edward IV (a capering, then crumbling David Ferry) engaged in some of that summer glory, hosting a party where his bloody ascension to the throne in the War of Roses is reenacted as farce.

Lifting a few lines from the final scene in Henry VI, Part III, Edward calls for "mirthful, comic shows" - and one takes place featuring the abuse of a rag doll representing Margaret, whose husband Henry VI was killed by Richard.

This callous celebration has the effect of establishing the living ghost Margaret (Martha Henry, hovering above the production in her own world) at the centre of the play, rather than Richard. Her famous curse of all the characters drives the action rather than Richard's Machiavellian scheming; indeed, her prophesy is so on the button it's essentially a plot summary. To say that Potter's production, then, is about a woman playing Richard, has a double meaning.

At first, McKenna's Richard seduces the audience easily. Her Richard is comic and very pleased with himself, but can be quite convincing when pretending to love his brother Clarence (a hapless Michael Spencer-Davis) or wooing Lady Anne (a fine Bethany Jillard, who proves a sharp shot with her spit).

For the most part, McKenna is surrounded by strong performances delivered in a uniformly contemporary cadence, notably Yanna McIntosh's Queen Elizabeth, Roberta Maxwell as Richard's mother, and Sean Arbuckle and Nigel Bennett as various lords. But the production also has a superficial, jocular tone - embodied by Wayne Best's grinning Buckingham - that eventually begins to wear thin.

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Richard III may be a dramatic descendent of two-dimensional, allegorical, morality-play characters - he compares himself to Vice, in one of his many meta-theatrical asides - but there's more psychological complexity to him than the beaming psychopath here. As Richard's mind begins to muddle ("my mind is changed," he says) and in his confrontation with his conscience on Bosworth Field, McKenna continues to deny him any depth or introspection. Add in a very ineffective parade of hissing ghosts at the end, and a production that starts off strong, slowly peters out.

Richard III

  • Written by William Shakespeare
  • Directed by Miles Potter
  • Starring Seana McKenna
  • At Tom Patterson Theatre In Stratford, Ont.

Richard III runs at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival until Sept. 25.

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Theatre critic

J. Kelly Nestruck is The Globe's theatre critic. More

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