Thursday, December 31, 2009

Watching Richard III

Watching the film versions of Richard III, you see the weaknesses and the strengths - not only of Richard, but of Shakespearean playwriting in general.

The weakness is definitely that Richard has no equally matched opponent. The story basically is a moralist checklist story - the more murders he checks off on his way to kingship, the more the list grows and the fewer friends he has to support him, until he has done himself in. It’s a lesson, not a drama.

The strengths are the language and the all-out evil character of Richard.

The two main film adaptations are the 1955 Laurence Olivier version and the 1995 Ian McKellen version. (The only important versions I missed were the 55-minute silent version from 1912 with Frederick Warde, the BBC television versions and, sadly, the horror versions: “Tower of London” with Basil Rathbone from 1939 and it’s remake in 1962 with Vincent Price, and “Theatre of Blood,” also with Price, about a theater actor who goes on a killing spree using Shakespearean methods, including one Richard III-murder - I assume it’s the wine barrel murder.)
McKellen is the most fun to watch, just because of the spectacle of this great actor chewing up the scenery: His Richard is all-out, over the top, grinning monster. McKellen was having a ball.

However, Olivier’s is still the best. He plays Richard as a simmering, controlled, over-articulated, slightly effeminate schemer. Ironically, what makes Olivier’s version better is that he plays Richard as a play, not a movie.

Let’s face it, Shakespeare wrote for a very limited, artificial and static stage. McKellen tries too hard to adapt the language to the dynamic of moving pictures, where everything moves, where everyone interacts, where you’re always thinking: Could it really happen this way?

Alas, it could not really happen this way. When two people are talking to each other, the one person does not go on and on, it’s a discussion. On real life, people don’t go off on monologues. That's the main problem with Shakespeare today: the style comes off as un-modern and stilted.

Shakespeare wrote speeches, not dialogues, even in scenes where two or more people are present. McKellen thought he could get around this by making someone nod or raise his eyebrows every couple of lines, or by accompanying a monologue with other interaction: He signs a paper while he talks, he wanders through a building, nodding to people, while he talks, the result is the feeling that his is fake. That the director isn’t doing his job: Why isn’t that guy reacting? Why is Richard going on and on as if no one else is in the room? It was a nice try, but it feels more artificial the more he tries to add a sense of pseudo-realism.
Olivier’s version is artificial and theatrical. He lets his Richard just stop the action and speak for minutes on end to the audience; his dialogues are really monologues; he declaims in a loud, over-articulated, theatrical voice instead of mumbling as per “The Method.” He embraces the formalism of Shakespeare and it brings it off: This is the kind of acting that Shakespeare wrote for. It’s poetry, not dialogue. Here, you feel all the nuances; you see the beauty of it. Where McKellen cuts monologues into snippets to disguise their monologue-ness, Olivier gives Shakespeare the full time and breadth that he needs. You feel the luxury of the language.

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