Antony Sher’s Richard III was famously (and brilliantly) the “bottled spider” of Queen Margaret’s curses, moving about the stage with arthropoid grace. Patrick Wymark’s is her “bunchback’d toad”, a croaking, earthy creature prone to sudden, calculated leaps. Angry at life, he needs the violence of war as an outlet for his rage, and the crown seems almost an arbitrary fixation – he must hack away at something to get at something.
Missing here is any hint of supernatural villainy, seductive power, Punch-like humor, or even evil. Wymark’s Richard succeeds on the strength of his focused, energetic pursuit of power and the resulting detachment from all other considerations. My favorite scene in this recording is the wooing of Lady Anne over the corpse of her saintly father-in-law, King Henry VI. Richard banters, parrying her curses and contempt, and then strikes as soon as he detects a fatal weakness. Blunt, cool and effective. Prunella Scales, as Lady Anne, reels – grief and anger have emptied her of the capacity to respond effectively – and she speaks the line “to take is not to give” so silently the microphone barely captures it. Her defeat is as heartbreaking as it is sudden.
And the scene is symbolic of the recurring cycle of victimization – one after another, unsuspecting victims suddenly find themselves defeated in the most palpable and obvious fashion. The characterization of the role of Richard, Duke of Gloucester shifts all the other performances in the play. A demonic creature of vengeance, a karma-dealing, cackling seductive Satan, gives ironic dignity to his victims. The greater the sense of irresistible evil, the more the play seems like the playing out of a historical thriller, and their victims struggle in noble helplessness. But in the face of Wymark’s unsubtle pragmatist, a far different conclusion is reached – that his victims (with two obvious exceptions) are fatally weak: vacant, dim, petty and dull, doomed by their nature to fall to his devices and his fierce energy.
King Edward is a vacillating, superstitious bloated sex-addict falling apart after years of self-indulgence. He presides over a squabbling team of self-centered nobles – the Queen’s brazenly power-hungry relatives, the wildly overconfident Lord Hastings (he and the King share a mistress), the Duke of Buckingham so stupidly clever that he can’t foresee the inevitable result of his own intrigues, and so on.
The crashing end of the Plantagenet dynasty is a twisted Twilight of the Gods, where Valhalla is populated by marionettes and Alberich the dwarf is the conquering hero-villain. It’s as if the English nobility had predeceased, replaced by wan aristocratic phantoms. Indeed, the wailing widows, Elizabeth, Margaret and the old Duchess of York, are like mere recollections rather than humans, moaning in impotent rage.
There’s a sense of completeness to this implosion, not the least because the play seems to grind to a halt as the wailing widows chant their griefs and wring their hands. But there is a final blaze as Richard himself meets his doom at Bosworth Field. Henry of Richmond, played by undergraduate actor John Shrapnel with an interesting note of cool sensibility, seems barely to lift a finger. Richard, though, is once again in his element, and even the ghosts of his victims can’t depress him for very long – Wymark really shines in his Act V performance, giving a particularly excellent account of the speech before the battle. His vigor is not dampened in the slightest, and he seems competent and even charismatic. He loses because his time has come, really, and foes have risen who are strangers to the leaden boldness of his medieval spirit and do not fear it.
Richard III with Patrick Wymark, William Squire, Prunella Scales, Mary Morris, Margaretta Scott, Patrick Garland and John Shrapnel.