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Friday, February 26, 2010

Production History of Richard III

While Richard III was one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays during his lifetime, Richard played by the famous Richard Burbage, its success has by no means stopped there. The play was performed once more in 1633 before the closing of the theatres in 1642, and then revived in 1700 with Colley Cibber’s shortened adaptation that embedded text from the Henry VI plays into the script. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, these condensed versions of the play remained popular and Richard III propelled many great English actors through their successful careers. David Garrick played Richard III almost continually from 1747 till 1776, and later Edmund Kean, the great, drunk, womanizing celebrity actor in London during the mid-19th century. In America, it was Edwin Forrest who used Richard III to achieve unprecedented fame on the American stage, playing into the typical portrayal of Richard as an “irredeemable monster, a dire warning against political tyranny” (Cliff 16-17). Although William Macready tried to popularize the full text once again in 1821, it was not until the 1870s that audiences were interested in a full-length Richard III.

David Garrick as Richard III.

The twentieth-century took the play from its popular shortened, highly theatrical and melodramatic form into more dynamic, diverse interpretations and ambitious stagings. In 1920, Leopold Jessner directed a version of the play in Berlin that reflected the “time of social and political upheaval in Europe” that inspired later productions to follow this more contemporary, political interpretation of the play (Besnault 123). Donald Wolfit, for example, directed a 1942 version of the play in which a Hitler-like Richard III reminded audiences all too well of the recent horrors of Nazi Germany. It is said that the audience even had to run for shelter because of a bomb alert that sounded during a production. Laurence Olivier played a “supremely cunning and devilish” Richard who also reflected the “cold-blooded ruthlessness” that viewers would have identified with the current war times (Besnault 123).

The 1950s saw a return to staging Shakespeare’s history plays with their “original practices” and it wasn’t until Terry Hands’ production in 1970 that the text was more fully experimented with. In 1984, Bill Alexander directed Richard III with the Royal Shakespeare Company in which Anthony Sherr played a spider-like Richard with a “crippling disease” who used a pair of crutches to move across the space while hopping and crawling (Besnault 123). In addition to Olivier’s own expressionist-inspired film version, the 1995 Richard Loncraine Richard III starring Ian McKellan offers yet another uncannily modern production that calls on images of 30s fascism and American gangsters to present a totalitarian Richard.

More recently in 2009, the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre staged its own “timeless” version of the play that looked at the play through more of a psychoanalytical lens then a political one. Although director Barbara Gaines saw the women as the “soul” of the play, she still placed them as powerless, fragile creatures in a violent world, while Richard was a man “attempting to deny his own humanity” and repress his instincts and feelings (Interview). The Garage Theatre in Long Beach, California invited audiences to “trip out on Richard as he slimes his way to the top” in its 2009 production (Garage Theatre Website). This performance, directed by Amy-Louise Sebelious, envisioned Richard as the DJ of a hot club called “The Tower,” updating the script with texting, drugs, and cross-dressing. At BAM, Kuwait’s Sabab/Sulayman Al-Bassam Theatre performed Richard III: An Arab Tragedy in which Richard’s rise to power was adapted for our own tumultuous, oil-obsessed times. The religious conflicts, nationalism, ritual, propaganda, and foreign affairs of the original text took on new meaning in this Arabic-language, contemporary version of the play commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company. The Royal Shakespeare Company's recent production of Richard III was set in “an alternative 19th century” England in which the Victorian prim-and-proper society becomes a glossy cover for the sordid, violent politics beneath. This production, in which director Sean Holmes strived to emphasize the theatricality of Richard’s character and his world, explored the movement in the plot from realism to expressionism while finding subtle connections to England’s current political structure and climate. These contemporary productions reveal how Richard III has lost no relevance or popular appeal since Richard Burbage was on the Elizabethan stage and continues to provide dramatists and audiences alike with haunting reflections of our own times.

Check out the YouTube video of Richard’s opening monologue on the BAM website, or read more about the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company productions.

Read more about the original production here.


Besnault, Marie-Hélène and Michel Bitot. “Historical legacy and fiction: the poetical reinvention of King Richard III.” The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare’s Histories. Ed. Michael Hattaway. Cambridge University Press. 2002. Print.

Cliff, Nigel. The Shakespeare Riots: Revenge, Drama and Death in Nineteenth-Century America. NY: Random House. 2007. Print.

Halperin, Marylin. “The Undertow of Richard III, Backstage, Director Interview.” Chicago Shakespeare Theatre. 2008. Web. Accessed 9-15-10. <,19,3,19,4,12>.

“Richard III.” Royal Shakespeare Company, n.d. Web. Accessed 9-15-10. <>.

“Richard III: An Arab Tragedy.” BAM. n.d. Web. Accessed 9-15-10. <>.

Scarborough, James. “Richard III, The Garage Theatre, by James Scarborough.” What the Butler Saw. Sept. 26, 2009. Web. Accessed 9-15-10. <>.

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