Act I, Scene II of William Shakespeare’s Richard III is one of the most psychologically complex and critical scenes in the entire Western canon. Richard, the Duke of Gloucester of the House of York, woos Lady Anne of the House of Lancaster after having killed her husband, Edward of Westminster, the Prince of Wales, along with her father-in-law, King Edward IV. As she stands over the dead king’s body, he states his intentions, but she is having none of it. He has his work cut out for him; she calls him “hedgehog,” “beast,” “devil,” and “villain,” but he is determined to win her in his devious plot to become ruler. “And thou unfit for any place but hell,” she spits out at him. “Yes, one place else, if you will hear me name it,” he says. “Some dungeon,” she declares. “Your bedchamber,” he boasts.
No matter how many times I see the play, I marvel at these moments. Richard is the embodiment of pure evil, a deformed creature with no soul. Yet we root for him to win Lady Anne’s heart, though we know how horrible that is; but the success of the rest of the play depends on Richard winning the audience as well. And I’m not sure I’ve ever been so in awe of the scene as in Druid’s current production at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater as part of Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival, with a sensational Aaron Monaghan taking charge as the titular character. Tony-winning director Garry Hynes (The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Cripple of Inishmaan) has Lady Anne (Siobhán Cullen) enter the stage wearing a long train on which she slowly, agonizingly drags the murdered king, wrapped tightly in white cloth. The Machiavellian Richard (Monaghan), dressed all in black, walking with two canes that make him move like a venomous six-limbed spider, admits to the killings and yet she still acquiesces to his romantic desires. It’s a thrilling scene that gets me every time, marveling at how the actor is going to pull it off. And Monaghan is magnificent, eliciting spontaneous applause at the end of the scene, which is as funny as it is frightening. “But then I sigh; and, with a piece of scripture, / Tell them that God bids us do good for evil: / And thus I clothe my naked villainy / With old odd ends stolen out of holy writ; / And seem a saint, when most I play the devil,” he tells us later.
Last year, Druid staged a very funny version of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot at the Gerald Lynch, with Monaghan as Estragon and Marty Rea as Vladimir, directed by Hynes, who ratchets up the comedy in Richard III as well. (Druid also brought The History Plays to the Lincoln Center Festival in 2015, also with Monaghan and Rea.) Rea again is Monaghan’s right-hand man, this time as the ever-loyal Sir William Catesby, who serves as executioner, dispatching his victims using a nail gun with a ridiculously long and colorful extension cord. Francis O’Connor’s set is a vast, empty industrial space covered in soft dirt, with high louvered metal walls and barred windows, the only props the nail gun and a metal barrel. O’Connor also designed the majestic costumes, which get dragged through the dirt, probably resulting in a big-time cleaning bill. At the front of the stage is a rectangular hole in the shape of a cemetery plot where the deceased are tossed in to rot; it is also where Richard emerges from at the beginning, as if rising straight out of hell. Dangling from the ceiling throughout is a Perspex box containing a smiling skull (inevitably recalling Damien Hirst), the specter of death and ambition threatening all.
The rest of the cast is splendid, including Marie Mullen as the witchlike Queen Margaret, Jane Brennan as the regal Queen Elizabeth, Ingrid Craigie as the Duchess of York, Garrett Lombard as Hastings and Tyrrel, Rory Nolan as Buckingham, Peter Daly as Rivers (making a great bald joke) and Brakenbury, Bosco Hogan as King Edward IV, and Frank Blake as the Earl of Richmond. However, following Act III, Scene V, when Richard convinces the Lord Mayor (Mullen) that he is worthy of wearing the crown — while making one of the silliest gestures I’ve seen in a Shakespeare show — the play, of course, turns, as Richard becomes less funny and more deranged and purely evil, and he is not in as many scenes, affecting the pacing and the audience’s involvement. The less Richard addresses us directly, the more removed we are from the action. It’s a facet of the play itself, but you’ll just have to slag through it until the climactic battle scene at Bosworth Field. And then the three-hour production is over, and Monaghan emerges for his curtain call from Richard’s dirt grave, emerging from hell one last time, although we know manipulative, conniving, power-hungry rulers like him will continue to rise all around the world, over and over again, but with a lot fewer laughs.