Sunday, October 15, 2006

Ian McKellan's Richard III

Hey all, indeed,

Cindy and Ernst have noted the 1995 Ian McKellen film of Richard III. The Royal Shakespeare actually toured this world-wide as a pre-film play, and I saw it in Denver. It was staged in Denver's huge Buell Theatre, maybe 2,500 seats. I went with CSU's wonderful Shakespeare prof, Dick Henze. We had tickets in the third (?) balcony. I remember most that the RSC refused to be miked, unlike every travelling Broadway musical, and the outrage from both the Denver audience and the management of the theatre was deafening.

Dick and I, in the third balcony, did not miss a line (but one must admit that both of us knew most of the play by heart), but to soothe the savage whining, the theatre management promised they would never allow the Royal Shakespeare to return to Denver. How about them Broncos? What we did take from the production was its brown-shirt hues, and the point about a fascist junta. The company was travelling light (from Europe on its way to Japan) so the staging was office tables and Nazi-like flags. Impressive acting quality (and, boy, did they know how to speak Shakespeare lines), but Dick and I agreed that the Nazi point was OK about power-seizing, but did little to illuminate the play or Richard other than as a vicious bureaucrat. I can't place my program, but the cast list was impressive.

Then the film, made after the company returned from its international tour. Now, all the vast panorama of film and effects were available, as well as expanding the cast to include a "star" in every role. Set sometime in the '20s, it is 1 hour, 44 minutes, very brisk for Shakespeare's second longest play (Hamlet is longer). So, no, Cindy, there is no Margaret, and for that matter there is no horse, of course. Most everyone else is there, but compacted. Tyrell is Richard's all-purpose murderer, from cutting Clarence's throat in a prison bath (strangely, there are five bathtubs side-by-side in a deserted room, and, as you must guess, I miss the butt of malmsey) to garroting Buckingham just before the final battle. Thus, it must be Tyrell under Lord River's bed; as Rivers is enduring fellatio in a hotel bed, a sword is thrust up through the mattress and spitted through his heart (Cindy said her then-boyfriend could not look, but my guess it was not tender sensibility but archetypal male fear that shriveled his timbers -- you know, the old 'sliding down a banister that turns into a razor blade' terror).

I'm not sure I'd call McKellen "fun"; he is quite sympathetic early on, then becomes a caricature toward the end. He is given to triumphant giggles (sort of verbal "high-fives" after he has fooled the Lord Mayor or Queen Elizabeth). Half his opening soliloquy is delivered at a '20s victory ball, after a torch singer has sung all of a swing song, "Come Live with Me and Be My Love." The "Now is the winter of my discontent" part is greeted with appreciative laughter from the partying Yorkists; irony is available only because a silent precredit scene shows Richard, in a gas mask, shooting Prince Edward (Henry VI's son) in the forehead. He then continues in the men's room while at a urinal, and describes his deformity and its resultant motivation to himself in a mirror, and finally he faces the film audience directly to declare "I am determined to prove a villain" and "plots have I laid." And away we go.

The seduction of Anne (in a morgue over Prince Edward's body) is still hard to comprehend. I got it for the first time, I think, on this most recent reading of the play, though after she accepts the ring, Richard dances up a stairwell, gimpy leg and all. Later, he seems to be sexually aroused by murder. When he receives an envelope with the late Clarence's glasses in it, he ignores the slinky Anne (Kristen Scott Thomas) waiting for him at the bottom of the stairs, satisfied, perhaps.

Anyway, the mis-en-scene counts for much -- massive buildings, corridors, all grey; barren fields; chambers deserted or filled with crowds to cheer the crowning of Richard (one expects he will begin his first regal address, "Deutsches volks genossen..." (pardon my spelling). I find the film interesting, yet it doesn't teach me much. And the ending is a shambles. None of the courage I see in the play or in my recent reading of history. Tanks, machine guns, armored cars (a few horses were paraded to stables before the battle). Richard's conscience is sort of there as a few voices while he sleeps, whereas Richmond prepares for battle by shagging the naked Elizabeth, his new bride (who says there is no sex in Shakespeare?) before putting on his pants and mounting [sic] his armored car with its machine gun.

Then, Richard's force is destroyed by bombs (Stanley is an air force general), and Richard's armored car gets stuck driving up a stone staircase -- Cindy is right; his "a horse, a horse" is a howler. Then, alone, he climbs high onto the scaffolding of one of those vacant industrial buildings that are cliches in most police-action TV dramas, pursued by young Richmond with his pistol. Up and up they go, until Richard tries to cross an exposed I-beam and is shot and falls, many stories into the bomb-induced conflagration (or hell, if you have any imagination left). And it ends with another swing song: "I'm Sitting on Top of the World" that has a line, "Like humpty-dumpty, I'm going to fall."

Good film, but not good Shakespeare. Still there are scenes, I would show a class were I teaching it. If there were world enough and time, maybe Randall and I can work on an analysis of the imagery here and in Olivier's 1955 version. Do I remember correctly, that at the end of the Olivier, his crown is hanging on the branch of a bush?


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