Richard 3: In Conversation with Peter Evans



Artistic Director of Bell Shakespeare and Director of Richard 3, Peter Evans, discusses what provoked, interested and challenged him in deciding to program and direct one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays.

Is Richard 3 more relevant now than it was when it was written in 1592?

When you think about reasons for doing this play, it’s difficult to avoid the fact that Richard 3 is swimming in political relevance. The truth is that this play has always been relevant – there is always a political situation somewhere that could have come from Richard’s machinations. For our times, this play is completely about Trump. It’s also important to recognise that it’s about so much more than that – it’s about history and how little we have moved on in 400 years – to not recognise that becomes reductive to the work. Its importance to us and the way that we as an audience engage with the play is that we can see that it’s reflective of the way power is grabbed, or that language is degraded, or the way that fear is used to incite loyalty in times of political unrest.

Does this production occur in a specific time or location?

This production is a continuation of my interest for the last 5 years of finding contemporary and abstract spaces that aren’t of a specific time or place, that work in the way Shakespeare’s stage at The Globe did. It’s quite clearly a stage on which we place our world, and everything on it moves fluidly. The staging enables us to travel quickly from scene to scene, whilst being a psychological space that can encompass ‘all the world.’

Compared to my more recent productions, the world we’ve created for Richard 3 is slightly different. It’s set in a room rather than an open space, however the principle is the same. In this production the characters are trapped for the entire play in one room, set up as a kind of party or convention. Changing the location from a 15th century castle to an unending party that no one can leave, is less about the location and more about building a community. It is a Court. Who’s in, who’s out in the social world. At this party the stakes are a little higher than most! By not only standing by silently, but also assisting his rise to power, Richard’s inner circle seek to protect their own place in the pecking order. Richard 3 is a great example of how it isn’t just about the people who climb to the top, it’s also about the people who support them. And more often than not it ends badly for the enablers.

I’m not interested in creating a contemporary equivalent to a historical event or finding some period or location that makes modern sense of where Shakespeare set the play. I think each of the plays exist on the stage and that they always have truth and reality in them, but not necessarily through representing real locations and real spaces.

What do you think this play has to share with audiences about power?

The History plays are about cycles. We’re painting a picture of a society that is constantly evolving, but in a sense is in an endless repeat of grabs for power. Cycles of violence, grief, and rage. That cycle is at the centre of all of the history plays and in this particular work we explore how a protagonist’s/antagonist’s movement towards power ironically erodes his influence. It gets less and less, until he is destroyed and the next person takes over. Within our world all of the women play one role, but we have the men emerging as different characters. They fold into playing two or three different roles and after people are killed they fade back into the party, before eventually unfolding again as another character. This is where the doubling and tripling of characters in our production gets interesting – we have a conveyor belt of characters who don’t speak up, who look after their own interests. They each get destroyed, but each of them has a moment of recognition. They acknowledge their hubris, or their schadenfreude, greed and/or naivety. And then the cycle continues.

What interests you most about Richard’s progression towards the crown?

One of Richard’s fascinating traits, and part of what makes him so successful, is that he’s unlikely. You can’t imagine him as ruler so you are unbalanced throughout his performance. People and scenes are often off-centre because they can’t believe what just happened, or anticipate what might come. There is a sense that reality has been shifted and Richard’s road to power is incredibly unlikely, with too many steps to get himself to the throne.

It would be fair to assume that few characters in Richard 3 know they’re in a play about Richard 3 – most people in the first half of the play think they’re performing in Edward 4, and that it’s about a time of peace and reconciliation. Then they think they are in Edward 5, all efforts are towards crowning the young Prince. Only Richard and the people he gathers around him [and Queen Margaret] know that Richard is the centre of the play. Only a few know that they are trying to get him to the crown, not realising that he will destroy everybody who could potentially usurp him once he’s at the top.

This is what makes Kate Mulvany perfect to play the role of Richard – the unlikeliness of it. Many characters in Richard 3 don’t see what he’s doing until it’s too late, and by then Richard has enough power and enough people around him to force his way on to the throne. Not only her gender, but her actual stature, makes her an unlikely threat. They underestimate how smart and audacious Richard is, and how far he’s willing to go; that he is more ruthless and will go further than anybody else. Audacity is an important trait also.

Kate’s ability to play extreme humility means that you become more aware of Richard as the consummate actor. As Richard changes ‘character’, the scenes within the play almost change genre. When it’s necessary for him to be the victim, the poor crippled little boy, Kate is astonishing at dropping into that moment, and suddenly we find ourselves unexpectedly empathetic towards Richard. You then come up against all these social norms where you think “even though you killed all those people it’s terrible that the other characters are so cruel to your face”. That’s a really interesting space to explore.

Gender also helps us to look at the misogyny in Richard’s character. Shakespeare is interested in misogyny and a lot of his central characters have a deep fear of women. Richard either blames women for his situation or he dismisses them. And that notion coming out of a female actor, even though Kate is playing a man, points it out. This is another reason why the women are so important in this play – we don’t double their characters, so they become a constant in carrying grief and rage throughout.

Kate’s Richard is quite confronting because what she brought into the rehearsal room is the belief that he is created, not born. She sees the victim in him, so there is a sense of empathy that is confronting. What I also believe is that Richard understands what he has done. And that whether he was born or made a villain, he has a deep appreciation that the pursuit of power has left him completely alone. Perhaps he has always been alone. But like a lot of Shakespeare’s villains he isolates himself to achieve his ambition, then once he has achieved it there is no one to share it with. We exploit this by having Richard constantly surrounded, never alone on the stage. He experiences the proper loneliness of being surrounded by people – truly alone where you have no relationships and no way of connecting with anyone. The fruitless pursuit of power, that eventually kills him.