Known as Shakespeare’s greatest villain, the title character in Richard III doesn’t seem an obvious choice of anti-hero for Shakespeare in the Ruff, an east-end alfresco classical theatre company, revived in 2012 after a six-year absence. The play, one of the Bard’s longest, typically runs more than three hours in its entirety, and is full of politics, intrigue, and murder.
Not your typical fare for summer theatre in the park. But the company, which delighted audiences with its madcap Two Gentlemen of Verona last year, has two aces up its sleeves: a fruitful collaboration with director, actor, and educator Diane D’Aquila, and leading man (and D’Aquila’s former National Theatre School student) Alex McCooeye.
McCooeye is by far the most striking aspect of the show. Richard, Duke of Gloucester, is often played as physically stunted as well as lame—a bitter, lifelong cripple. But while McCooeye’s “hunchback” does walk with a limp, the lean and very tall actor takes palpable and enthusiastic delight in Richard’s schemes. It isn’t until late in the show, when Richard’s ascension to the throne is complete and the stress of keeping it begins to unravel him, that the character loses this almost childlike quality—a pleasure for the audience to watch, because of McCooeye’s natural charisma.
The other real pluses of the show are D’Aquila’s assured direction and her streamlined edit of the play with dramaturge Andrew Joseph Richardson, which results in a show under 100 minutes long. While it’s admittedly been a while since we last saw Richard III, the most memorable of Richard’s soliloquies are still there, and the action speeds along. (We never looked at our watches while the show was on.) Purists will be able to note sections cut, and characters conflated.
The supporting cast is quite fine, too, and includes D’Aquila herself in the small but pivotal role of Richard’s mother; Jacklyn Francis as the tragic Lady Elizabeth, who loses all her offspring to Richard; and Marc Bondy as the usurper’s Blackberry-carrying advisor, the most corporate of the play’s scoundrels. Civil-servant dress (a uniform, almost, of slacks and button-up shirts) is prevalent. Though the show isn’t overtly linked to a time period or to particular present-day politicians, we found that it recalls the (occasionally badly dressed) power struggles in Ottawa.
There’s some clever staging with the very-limited tech the company has in the park, including a scene where Richard is surrounded by enemies. But it’s the nearly cartoonish quality with which McCooeye invests his character and the mixture of flattery and murder that gets him quickly to the top that make this a show you’ll laugh with. The audacity with which Richard flatters, lies, and kills his way to the crown never gets old.