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Interview with Richard III director Robert Richmond

Director, Robert Richmond.
Director, Robert Richmond.

Richard III is now up and running here at the Folger Theatre, having its official opening this evening. As you may already know, this is the first production ever presented “in-the-round” here at the Folger, making this a very unique experience. We wanted to sit down and pose a few questions about the work behind-the-scenes with a few of those on the creative team…and first up, is the director behind the show, Robert Richmond (who directed last season’s magnificent Henry V, in addition to Othello, Henry VIII, among others at Folger Theatre). Here is our Q&A with him…we hope you enjoy!

FOLGER THEATRE: Can you share with us what your inspiration was for staging this production of Richard III in the round and transforming the Folger space (for the first time in its production history)?

R. RICHMOND: The discovery of Richard’s skeletal remains under a parking lot in Leicester in August 2012 was the inspirational springboard for this production. The revelations that discovery produced: his horrific battle wounds, a clear glimpse of his infamous deformity (a spine twisted with advanced scoliosis), and strange physical deformities; demanded us to re-examine the psyche of the last Plantagenet king. Too often reduced to over-arching terms like villain, tyrant, and murder, confronting Richard’s bones forces us to face up to the fact that he was indeed a human being who faced a complex and dangerous Medieval world. He is now more fact than fiction.

The cast of Richard III, in the round.
The cast of Richard III, in the round.

This led me to think about bringing the audience as close to Richard as possible, and to provide an immersive, 360-degree experience of the play. Presenting Richard III in the round  at the Folger also allows us to invest in the underworld—the afterlife, the dark world, the superstitious world, that is brimming underneath the action of the play. The experience of this production should feel violent and dangerous, the audience should feel that every seat is a hot seat, and a murderer could crawl out of the woodwork next to them. We’ve built a set with a series of traps and graves and the audience is as close as they can get to the violence and the action.

FOLGER THEATRE: Can you tell us a bit about the collaboration involved (regarding your creative team) in taking on this massive undertaking?

R. RICHMOND: The entire design team invested whole-heartedly in adapting the stage to the play. Tony Cisek, the set designer, was inspired by a trip to Peru and brought elements of the burial traditions he observed there. Jim Hunter, the lighting designer, drew inspiration from cult classic vampire films and alternate reality websites and games. Mariah Hale, costume designer, has created a varied and gorgeous palate of modern and period pieces that, while all black, are all uniquely different. The design elements are individually crafter to make a cohesive vision. Charles Flye, Technical Director, work endlessly to make this crazy idea a reality, and the entire Folger staff was enthusiastic and supportive. Without them this would not have happened.

Drew Cortese, as King Richard.
Drew Cortese, as King Richard.

FOLGER THEATRE: Many already have a pre-conceived notion of what kind of man Richard III was…his reputation for villainy is notorious. What has your approach to this character been and what kind of Richard shall we expect to see?

R. RICHMOND: Going back to the revelation of the bones and setting this in the round, we’re hoping to create a Richard that is in no way one dimensional- but rather a justified and practical look at the inner workings of his mind. A psychopath, to be sure, but perhaps within his upbringing and the world he inhabits, there is rationale for why Richard is the way that his is? We’d like to compare the experience to an intimate interview with a serial killer in order to unpack what makes him tick.

We have had many conversations with Drew Cortese (playing Richard) on what form the deformity would take. Is it a psychological affliction, and takes it shape internally, similar to the depravity that damages in The Picture of Dorian Gray?  Or, perhaps, similar to the South African Olympian Oscar Pistorius, whose story revealed unending complexity as it developed on the world stage about a year ago, his disadvantage is actually an advantage, but the tolls it takes on the personality are too much to bear.

The form it takes will not be limited to a physical handicap; but rather, we’re aiming for an approach that reveals the inner life of the character. The bones suggest the scoliosis worsened as Richard aged, an idea that prompted us to think about how the deformity could cripple him physically, psychologically and emotionally throughout the play.

Richard (Drew Cortese) pleads to Lady Anne (Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan).
Richard (Drew Cortese) pleads to Lady Anne (Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan).

FOLGER THEATRE: What are some of the challenges you have been facing in working to mount this production of Richard III?

R. RICHMOND: The process of re-imagining the entire Folger theater was a  challenge and smaller challenges have emerged as a result: the spacing is entirely different. The play is rhetoric heavy and can trap the actor to get “stuck” in one part of the stage. That cannot ever happen on our stage without blocking an audience member’s view. When staging the play, I thought a little about the face of a clock and tried to “spin the dials” of the room a couple times during each scene so that everything turns over and upside down.

Another challenge is the referential nature of the text. I compare this play to a contemporary work about a political leader in the last 60 years. There are some parts of our history that need no explanation. Indeed, a lot of audience members have clear memories of that event. This would have been the case during a production of Richard III in Elizabethan England. Henry Tudor was her grandfather and so this “history” play would have felt quite fresh. Our job is to make all of the references to Rutland, Mistress Shore, and all of the major figures of the War of the Roses, feel as recent and intimate to our collective memory as say, Marilyn Monroe, Jackie Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, or the McCarthy era.

FOLGER THEATRE: You have directed a number of productions here at the Folger Theatre. Can you share with us your thoughts on what it is like working in this unique space compared to other theatres you have worked at?

Naomi Jacobson stars as Queen Margaret.
Naomi Jacobson stars as Queen Margaret.

R. RICHMOND: The Folger always affords every production the unique opportunity of being both intimate and epic. This new configuration of the space has lost none of that ability. Moreover, I believe it has actually enhanced the experience as the audience can now sit in the same room as the action. I have been very fortunate to work in many different spaces. This is one of the most exciting I have ever worked in.

FOLGER THEATRE: For those familiar with the Folger Theatre, what can audiences expect to see when they walk into the (“new”) space to see this production?

R. RICHMOND: The space is almost unrecognizable. I hope those familiar with the Folger will be pleasantly surprised by how intimate and new the space feels. We’ve tested every seat in the house and each one feels like an actor could reach out and shake your hand.

What they will see is an arena, purpose-built for a shared experience. An experience that will remember for a long time to come.

We thank Robert for taking the time to answer a few of our questions on Richard III…and we surely hope you come to the Folger Theatre to see the show!

One Comment

  • I am *loving* the photo of Naomi Jacobson. Queen Margaret in this play is, I think, one of Shakespeare’s best characters, carrying such a huge portion of the play’s themes and undercurrents (prophecy, curses, dreams, etc.), and she’s too often slighted in stage productions. This photo shows that not only is she part of this production (hallelujah), but she’s depicted as a still-vibrant badass woman to be feared. I cannot wait to see this!

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