Richard III

Bob Frazer as Richard III. Photo by David BlueRichard III by William Shakespeare
Directed by Kathryn Shaw
Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival,
Douglas Campbell Studio Stage, Vanier Park.
July 13 to September 23, 2011

Vancouver, BC. At the end of Henry VI: The War of the Roses, I left the Studio Stage theatre looking forward to seeing Bob Frazer as the unrepentantly villainous Richard in the concluding play of Bard's Kings History Play Cycle, Richard III. 

The day of the show's opening was also the first 7 hour marathon day of the intermediate level wine course I am taking. While we learned about regions and varietals, we also tasted 18 wines, 9 during the morning and 9  in the afternoon session. I rushed home to change and made it to Vanier Park in time to pick up The Merchant's Antipasto picnic basket from Emelle's Catering, and wolf it down before the show began. I was worried that sheer exhaustion plus whatever alcohol could be left in my system might cause me to nod off but to the contrary, I was riveted throughout the show and could not take my eyes off the stage.

Mention Richard III to most people and whether or not they have seen  Shakespeare's play, they associate his name with the murder of the young Princes in the Tower of London. It's like Medea. Mention her name and the first association is infanticide  not the complex and multi-faceted nature of this woman. So leaving aside the little princes, what is this Richard all about?

Linda Quibell and Nicola Lipman. Photo by David BlueIn the Wars of the Roses we saw that the Lancasters had been defeated and Richard's older brother Edward IV (Joel Wirkkunen) a Yorkist, took over the throne of England. At the end of Henry VI, Edward's crippled youngest brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester (Bob Frazer) warned us of his own plan ultimately to take the throne.

During the course of this play Richard manages to dispose of anybody who may be seen to have prior claims to the throne  - his brothers, Clarence (Craig Erickson) and Edward himself, his nephews, the young Prince Edward (Hayden Davies) and young York (Dante Zago). Supported by the Duke of Buckingham (Scott Bellis), he also gets rid of anyone who could possibly oppose him.  Eventually his evil deeds catch up with him. He is killed in battle and the houses of Lancaster and York are united through marriage. The reign of the Tudors begins.

Kathryn Shaw directs a stellar cast with strong performances too numerous to mention. The women have a particularly poignant scene after the death of the princes, when the mourning Queen Elizabeth (Jillian Fargey) and Richard's mother, the Duchess of York (Nicola Lipman) encounter Queen Margaret (Linda Quibell), widow of Henry VI - and recall their sons and husbands killed by Richard.

Bob Frazer. Photo by David BlueBut the play is Frazer's. From the moment he appears, leaning forward on his crutches, seemingly hanging over the stage like a giant evil cockroach, he dominates the scene. Even in the rare moments when he is not on stage, Frazer's misshapen, malevolent Richard poisons the air with the malignant miasma of his evil intentions.   The physicality of his performance just blew me away. Twisted feet dragging, hunched over his crutches, he did not for one second seem other than a man badly damaged in the womb. But even more impressive was his subtle portrayal of the gradual change in Richard's personality from the almost-likeable, conscience-free psychopath of the first act, to an unstoppable murderer, tormented by the ghosts and shadows of those he has killed.

Frazer deservedly got a standing ovation on opening, and even after the lights were up the audience continued to applaud till he came back for another bow. It was a true tour de force but I hope he has a great massage therapist because three months of this level of performance must be hell on his body.

Adding spice to my interest in Bard's version Richard III, was the fact that I will also be seeing Richard III at the Stratford Festival later this year.  Stratford's version will feature as Richard, Seana McKenna, whose 2001 Playhouse performance as Vivian Bearing in Wit, was one of the most moving theatrical experiences of my life. An opportunity to contrast McKenna's transgendered Richard with Frazer's profoundly physical interpretation of the role - well, that is theatre at its most exciting.

If you see only one play at Vanier Park this year, Richard III would be my pick. But it will add to your enjoyment if you see Henry VI first. And I thought As You Like It and The Merchant of Venice were terrific as well. An excellent year for Bard.

For tickets call the Box office at 604-739-0559 or book on line.

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