The news of the unearthing in a parking lot in Leicester of what were thought to be the remains of King Richard III (an identification now confirmed) coincided with our long-awaited visit to Jaracza Theater in Łódź to see Grzegorz Wiśniewski’s production of Shakespeare’s Richard III, the winner of the Golden Yorick at the Gdańsk Shakespeare Festival of the summer of 2012. Although Shakespeare’s much exaggerated portrayal of the deformed monster was never meant to be historically accurate, the powerful stage image of a crooked body with a crooked mind has proved so irresistible that for many, fiction has obscured fact.
Shakespeare (re)created history. Debating whether the Leicester skeleton’s lack of any visible deformity might affect future screen/stage portrayals of this arch-villain with a long history of humps and prosthetic legs of various shapes and sizes, we entered into the intimate acting area. Three male actors in elegant modern suits were already seated at a long table, a meter directly in front of the audience. From the black-and-white poster for the production, featuring a neat and bearded young man smiling at the camera, we knew that here before us stage right was Richard, [End Page 494]even though no physical deformity was discernible. With a sudden thrust of the door the play was summoned to life as Margaret, her son and Lady Anne joined the men at the table. Edward was the first to speak. Clarence soon joined in. Richard, on the other hand, remained silent. We could sense a slowly building tension behind that inconspicuous and pleasant face.
Wisniewski’s decision to downplay Gloucester’s disfigured body was not informed by the archaeological dig in Leicester, as the production had premiered in March 2012. The audience soon realized, instead, that it came about as a result of another bold textual decision—the cutting of almost all of Richard’s soliloquies, except for one when he addressed the audience after the opening scene with a speech from Henry VI, Part 3:
I have no brother, I am like no brother; And this word ‘love,’ which greybeards call divine, Be resident in men like one another And not in me—I am myself alone. [. . .] Counting myself but bad till I be best.(5.6.181–4, 92)
This choice made it clear from the start that Wisniewski did not favor a star-driven approach to the play, but was more interested in creating an ensemble piece. With a small cast of just thirteen, he presented us with a psychological study of a character against the background of a tight-knit family whose members constantly formed dysfunctional alliances and volatile loyalties, struggling for survival in compulsive power games. Richard was shown as no particular exception to the rule; murder seemed to be just as much part of his DNA as it was of that of his elder brothers, except that he appeared to be more driven, passionate and emotional when killing than they were.
The minimalist but overpowering set designed by Wiśniewski (which won him the Golden Mask award in 2012) fitted the theme of the production and communicated oppression and menace. It consisted of a long black table downstage and huge steps made of platforms in the shape of a pyramid. Upstage, at the top of the steps, a polished metal surface offered a slightly distorted image of the stage and auditorium. Most of the scenes were imbued in semi-darkness and the characters appeared to emerge from nowhere...