Friday, June 4, 2010

Reeling Backward: "Richard III" (1955)

Shakespeare is better read than seen.

I long ago came to this blasphemous conclusion, which no doubt will earn me the title of uncouth knave among those who cherish the immortal Bard. But if they're honest, they'll admit that anyone outside of those with an advanced degree in English literature can hardly understand the flowery poetry of his plays.

The passing of half a millennium, not to mention dialogue that was crafted for its artfulness rather than its verisimilitude, make it a baffling experience in which you sit there, listening to the words and trying to assemble their meaning in your head as they fly by at an unstopping pace. I myself will admit to grasping perhaps 40 percent of it.

Laurence Olivier's early film career was defined in part by his Shakespearean adaptations: "Hamlet," "Henry V" and "Richard III" in 1955. These films, which he also directed, breathed life into the artifice of the plays as much as the aforementioned challenges allowed.

It's interesting to me how history-based fiction seems desperate for villains, to the point of turning monarchs and other historical figures into blackhearts even when they did not earn that depiction.

For example, all the stories involving Robin Hood show Richard the Lionheart as virtuous and true, while his brother John was a depraved usurper. In actuality, Richard was a poor king who barely spent any of his life in England, and John signed the Magna Carta, the foundation upon which all of modern Western democracy was built.

King Richard III ruled for but two years, and was overthrown by a coalition of lords. Interesting footnote: He was the last British king to die in battle. Shakespeare's play depicts him as a loathsome, though cunningly charismatic figure, who will stop at nothing to secure the throne, including murdering his own brother, nephews and wife.

The historical record is much murkier. It's not even clear if the sons of Edward IV were ever murdered. Rumors that they were bastards and thus not eligible for the throne were spread, but we don't know if Richard was behind it. A mock trial held in 1997 judged by three Supreme Court justices acquitted Richard of guilt.

It's entirely likely that Richard was not even a hunchback, which is a central motif of the play. Word is that the man who overthrew him, the Earl of Richmond (later Henry VII) ordered portraits of Richard altered to make him misshapen.

So much for Richard's soliloquy about his body being "rudely stamp'd."

It's fascinating to note that Richard is almost always portrayed by middle-aged actors -- Olivier was 48, and actually comes in at the low end. In reality, Richard was only 32 when he died.

Olivier is a delight in the title role. The way he connives and plots and lies to his political opponents, and then turns to the audience to deliver a delicious observation about their failings and how he's going to best them, lends the film a comedic undertone.

If you think about it, as a storytelling device it's not terribly different from the structure of reality television, in which the participants comment on the action in interviews recorded separately and intercut with the main narrative. Even fictional shows like "The Office" and "Parks and Recreation" have come to use the device of the faux documentary to allow characters to speak directly to the audience, much as Shakespeare loved to do.

As history, "Richard III" is a load of cock and bull. As a piece of narrative, it jumps around haphazardly, has dozens of characters who get lost in the shuffle, and is often impossible to decipher because of the language barrier. As a character study, it's an often delightful mix of tragedy and humor, sometimes within the same scene.

2.5 stars out of four

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