“Why, I can smile, and murder whiles I smile,
And cry, `Content! to that which grieves my heart,
And wet my cheeks with artificial tears,
And frame my face to all occasions.
I`ll drown more sailors than the mermaid shall;
I`ll slay more gazers than the basilisk;
I`ll play the orator as well as Nestor,
Deceive more slyly than Ulysses could,
And, like a Sinon, take another Troy.
I can add colours to the chameleon,
Change shapes with Proteus for advantages,
And set the murderous Machiavel to school.
Can I do this, and cannot get a crown?
Tut, were it further off, I`ll pluck it down.”
I`ve been a few times round the block watching RSC stage adaptions of the bard, and Anthony Sher`s singular portrayal of one of the written word`s greatest villains is the finest I`ve seen. And so to read his diary of the how, the why and wherefore of his interpretation, was always going to be interesting.
What is striking, is his admission of a near obsession with Olivier`s Richard: he genuinely thought this was as near a definitive performance as you were likely to get. But of course, the wonderful thing about words is how many ways they can be bent, manipulated and coaxed into seeking new pathways; like a sinuous torrent of verbal water, they will always find a different, and unexpected course in the hands of a seeker of the truth.
As a seeker of Richard`s soul, Anthony Sher went to homes for the disabled to look at various disabilities and how he could adapt them to a stage performance. Some actors play down Richard`s serious disability – but the opening speech clearly shows Richard has struggled all his life against the prejudice and hatred of others towards his disabilities – and so this has coloured his world view of who and what he represents to himself and his peers.
The Year of the King finds Sher imbuing himself with inspiration and the confidence to stare down Olivier`s monumental performance and create his own Richard which could stand tall on it`s own two legs, and hopefully, live as long in the memory of those who saw it as did Olivier`s performance.
“O, thou didst prophecy the time would come
That I should wish for thee to help me curse
That bottled spider, that foul bunch – back`d toad!”
Anthony Sher`s research didn`t stop at physical disability; sociopathic psychology and the mind-set of the serial killer seemed a particularly interesting avenue to stroll down. They can often be highly intelligent and witty; Richard has a pitch black, malicious sense of humour, which can be intimidating and disconcerting to those intellectually not quite up to the mental challenge he sets.
Richard: “Ay, what`s o`clock?”
Buckingham: “Upon the stroke of ten.”
Richard: “Well, let it strike.”
Buckingham: “Why let it strike?”
Richard: “Because that, like a Jack, thou keep`st the stroke
Betwixt thy begging and my meditation.
I am not in the giving vein to – day.”
Even though Richard has now been found, and historically the character of the man under the car park, and the man Shakespeare gives us are probably well at odds with each other, Anthony Sher wouldn`t play him any differently from the Shakespearean Richard. There are ways and means for an actor to stretch, pull and retrofit his own personality into the role, but ultimately, you mess around with Shakespeare at your peril. To make Shakespeare`s Richard something he isn`t would take away the fun of playing such a gleefully villainous despot.
“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.”
Richard doesn`t stand alone: while there are great actors to interpret his words and motivation, and allow us to glimpse the dark and murky interior furniture upon which he mentally lounges, as he weaves his plots, and spins his web of intrigue; we are there, as he, holding our hands with a tightened grip, leads us from the light into the joyful darkness of his soul.