Kadozuke’s Richard III: right out of today’s headlines

Tatiana Jennings seems prescient. I understand that she and her collaborators in Kadozuke Kollektif and Bad New Days have been working on their adaptation of Shakespeare’s Richard III for awhile, a piece titled Richard III: the pleasures of violence. How did they know that this week everyone would show up at the theatre, primed and ready for a tale such as this one?

There’s Ray Rice, caught on video physically abusing his fiancé. There’s Rob Ford sharing the spotlight with ex-boxer Mike Tyson, glamourizing violence without apology.  And let’s not forget Vladimir Putin, rattling his sabres & giving us cold-war nightmares. This is not a good week for speaking truth to power.

Of all Shakespeare’s history plays, Richard III might be the least accurate in its historical details.  No wonder it was popular, a star vehicle for the actor portraying the monstrous tyrant. It’s outdated so of course one can’t blame Jennings for modernizing, as we saw in that 1995 film adaptation with Ian McKellan. Its fascist overtones fit the larger-than-life story very well.

Jennings & company up the ante, bringing it that much closer to the present in the behaviour of the characters (reminding me of Mr & Mrs Rice for example) even while resisting the impulse to be in any way commercial or easy on the audience. It’s very long, and I don’t say that as a criticism, speaking as a big fan of Wagner opera; but be prepared for a four hour night at the theatre, unless some time gets shaved off as complexities of set-changes are simplified. But in this reading Jennings explore depths of emotion, implications and after-effects, very much as she said she would in her recent interview.

We explore the sensations of many moments in the drama, taking us far beyond mere words. Sometimes Jennings encourages pure enactment of tableau, venturing into a realm something like dance or masque. Dylan Stavenjord’s sound design is at times like a film-score, gently supporting without being obtrusive.

Vladimir Kovalchuk's set design  was configured & reconfigured endlessly

Vladimir Kovalchuk’s set design was configured & reconfigured endlessly

In some respects Vladimir Kovalchuk’s set is the star of the show, not least because the many brilliant configurations of the pieces requires everyone onstage to move pieces in an unending variety of shapes. I was reminded of Robert Lepage’s Ring Cycle design, both being an assembly of rectangular shapes, except that this one was spartan, whereas Lepage’s was humongous and very expensive. As with the Met’s “Machine”, the shapes served as backdrop, partition, floor, and even a kind of jungle-gym.

Lee McDonald does, however, live up to the challenges of this role, managing to be as likeable as a Iago (which is to say, a persuasive phony), but becoming more menacing with every appearance.

 Lee McDougall and Lacey Creighton (Photographer: Tatiana Jennings)

Lee McDonald and Lacey Creighton (Photographer: Tatiana Jennings)

The Kollektif draws upon many diverse skills, even while demonstrating an expressive vocabulary that I recognize from the last show I saw, Codex Nocturno, even though it’s more than three years ago. Jennings is a choreographer, employing a cast that is mostly comprised of physiques capable of amazing movement, and stunning to watch even if they’re just eating a grape or staring off into space. For whatever reason, Jennings gives her women much more interesting movement from what I can see. Barbara Amponsah (especially powerful as the Queen Elizabeth), Caitlin Morris-Cornfield (a quirky old Queen Margaret and a boisterous child as Richard) and particularly Lacey Creighton (Lady Anne) seemed to be the ones the director regularly relied upon for the most powerful effects. Forgive me if I don’t mention everyone in the company of nine, who were sometimes as fluid and co-ordinated as a corps de ballet, even while staying in character.

For all the modern elements in Zuke’s Richard III, this production does have some aspects that seem very true to Shakespeare & the original practice movement. The children are played by adults, and one of the women is played by a man. The doubling of parts approaches the proportions I’ve read of as the ideal (it’s somewhere around a dozen according to Shakespeare scholar John Meagher). The set is never very representational, but hints at corridors, prison cells, space & enclosure, the actors boldly occupying the same space as the small audience rather than being inside some sort of proscenium arch.

I can’t help noticing how much better live theatre handles interpretive adventurers like Jennings than in the operatic world. While opera seems to be going through a kind of crisis centred on Regietheater (or “director’s theatre”), there’s no such problem once you’re dealing with a play script. At the Stratford Festival, for example, Peter Sellars was turned loose to fearlessly re-imagine A Midsummernight’s Dream as a kind of chamber Regietheater: which is to say, precisely the sort of thing he regularly does in opera (and has done recently with the Canadian Opera Company, such as his re-think of Hercules last year as a tale of the modern era, or his collaboration with Bill Viola in Tristan und Isolde). For all the divergences from Shakespeare, I was riveted four hours later, a bit sad when it ended and hoping that I’ll get a chance to see it once more.

Kadozüké Kollektif and Bad New Days co-present Richard III, The Pleasures of Violence at Zuke Studios / Imagefoundry, 1581 Dupont St. Toronto, and will be running September 10 – 14, 18-21, 25 – 28. Tickets are available at www.zuke.ca.

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