Will the real Richard III stand up?
Artistic director of Bell Shakespeare company, John Bell, discusses whether the discovery of Richard III's remains will affect future portrayals.PT3M21S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-2dw3y 620 349 February 5, 2013
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Shakespeare's Richard III may have been ''a lump of foul deformity'', born ''scarce half made up'' with a ''withered arm''. But the discovery of the monarch's skeleton beneath a Leicester car park has proved the real Richard was no ''bunchback'd toad''.
The severe scoliosis is there - Shakespeare had it half right - but there is no evidence of hump, twisted leg or deformed arm. Richard's limbs are slender and straight.
Return of the king … ... Kevin Spacey. Photo: Supplied
''The discovery is very exciting historically, but it doesn't make much difference, frankly, to the play,'' says Bell Shakespeare's artistic director, John Bell, who has played Richard three times. ''I'd be far more excited if they found documents that tell us more about what kind of person he was.''
Bell says the play was never meant to be a documentary. ''Richard III is not a history play, it is a morality play. Whatever the evidence is, we'll keep on playing the text, alongside any future discoveries.''
Bell predicts the biggest challenge for actors will be the reconstructed face of the real Richard. ''Looking at that skull is really spooky,'' he says. ''Before now, we didn't know what he looked like. Actors had carte blanche over his appearance. This might limit actors' choices in future.''
The facial reconstruction shows Richard, who was killed in the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 aged 32, was boyish-looking, with an arched nose and strong chin. There is nothing ugly or ''rudely stamp'd'' about his face. ''He looks much nicer than in the paintings,'' Dorothea Preis, webmaster for the NSW branch of the worldwide Richard III Society, says. ''Just finding him and putting a real face to him, gives people a better chance to be aware there are two sides to his story. The play shows him as evil, but also charming. It is a wonderful play, a masterpiece, but maybe Shakespeare had the wrong protagonist.''
Preis says parliamentary records show Richard was a ''good'' king in his day. He introduced bail, abolished taxes on printed books and ordered the translation of written laws from French into English.
''He wanted to encourage the spread of knowledge by encouraging people to buy books. That law was only changed when Tony Blair became prime minister,'' Preis says.
The Ensemble Theatre will present Richard III in 2014, directed by and starring Mark Kilmurry.
British-born Kilmurry says he was excited to hear the news about the discovery of the skeleton. ''I've probably parked in that car park. Who knew?'' he says. ''But for me the difference between the real Richard and Shakespeare's Richard has always been contentious. In the end, you have to serve the play and Shakespeare has written him as a deformed villain. Playing him with just a slight limp would undercut the play. I will play him with some kind of physical handicap but I won't play him like Quasimodo.''
Pamela Rabe, who played Richard III in Benedict Andrews's Sydney Theatre Company production of The War of the Roses (2009), abandoned all vestiges of hump, club foot or withered arm.
''We played around with those things but in this context, it didn't have a place,'' she told the Herald at the time. ''Richard's disability is more like a virus running through all the plays and finally coming together to produce this sick monster-clown. You're seeing a deeply sick soul at work.''
Damien Ryan, artistic director of outdoor Shakespeare specialists Sport for Jove, is planning a Richard III for December in the Sydney Hills Shakespeare Festival and Leura Shakespeare Festival.
''In some ways this might humanise the approach to him a little from the increasing grotesquery we often see,'' Ryan says. ''But otherwise Shakespeare's play is a story, a drama and essentially a fiction so it will continue to be reinterpreted to suit the climate and the imagination of the artist. But still, it's an exciting find. Such a tiny grave and bent spine.''
Kevin Spacey played the king in 2011 with a caliper on his left leg, prowling the stage with the help of a walking stick. At the time, Spacey said he was following the advice of fellow actor Simon Russell Beale: ''If you have a hump, let the hump do the acting.''
Bell says he consulted an osteopath before his Helpmann Award-winning performance of the king in 2002. ''I learnt that the scoliosis might have caused one shoulder to be slightly higher than the other. So I had a costume made that had the deformity built into it so I could feel the restriction of it and the discomfort of it. I had the hump and one leg shorter than the other and the withered arm. The deformity embittered and informed the psychology of the character, I suppose. I tried to bring together the physical and the psychological and make them as one.''
Ewen Leslie, who won a Helpmann for his West Wing-inspired Richard in 2010 for the Melbourne Theatre Company, says he aimed to droop the left side of his body, as though he had cerebral palsy. ''It's so extraordinary to see pictures of the skeleton and that severe scoliosis now,'' he says. ''I think actors in future productions will look at the skeleton and any other discoveries they make about his physicality and try to use that. But the skeleton only gives us physical information not moral information. So actors will continue to portray Richard as a villain and be true to the text. I guess it's the old saying, 'never let the truth get in the way of a good yarn.'''
Kilmurry says the wounds to the skull might change the way directors stage the final scenes. ''We know he was brave and he was a warrior. He's a man of war and those times were absolutely brutal,'' he says.
Leslie agrees. ''Brutalising and mutilating someone after their death with all those 'humiliation wounds' makes you think about what sort of man was he. But at the same time, those were incredibly violent times. He must have been a trophy, in a way. It's pretty awful.''
Bell predicts there may be a rush of new plays about Richard III. ''Writers will be very interested in new interpretations of his life and story,'' he says. ''But we will continue to perform Shakespeare's text just as it is.''