I went to see Richard III at the Shakespeare Theatre of NJ (STNJ) yesterday afternoon. It’s the story of the last Plantagenet king of England—a man who lived and fought through much of the War of the Roses. He dies in battle himself and Henry Tudor seizes the throne.
To hear the Tudors and their subjects tell it, Richard was a heinous villain with even the blood of his two nephews on his hands. Personally, I don’t believe that. (Yes, I’m biased and yes, I like my roses white.) Shakespeare goes along with this propaganda but nonetheless makes Richard a sinfully enticing character who keeps confiding in the audience. You can’t help but root for the guy, even if you feel guilty about it.
(House of Cards borrowed this device. That show has a very Richard III feel to it.)
Some of Richard’s supporters won’t go to this play. Alas, I’m not that hardcore. In fact, this is one of my favorites. After all, if someone writes a play about me after my death and turns me into a compelling, ambitious, psychopathic murderer, it might as well be Shakespeare.
So why did I name this meta after Richard’s muscles? Derek Wilson is currently playing Richard at the STNJ, and he’s rather buff. And since this is a modern dress production, he’s sometimes in a tee-shirt, and it’s sometimes really obvious that he has awesome guns.
Those muscles seem to have annoyed a few critics. Richard, in this play, is supposed to be an obvious hunchback with one withered arm and maybe a limp. (Now that the historical Richard’s bones have been uncovered, it seems clear that he did suffer from spinal scoliosis. But it’s also clear that Shakespeare exaggerated.) Shakespeare wanted him to seem malformed in body and mind, but charm us all regardless. Hence, in this production, Richard favors one arm, often uses a cane and, yes, has trouble with his back. But, despite those handicaps, he’s clearly a man of considerable physical prowess.
I think that’s the right choice. Some critics might picture Richard as frail and scrawny, but to me that doesn’t fit. He might have been wiry—and he might have had his back issues—but I don’t think frail is the right term for a man who was a fierce soldier, both in history and in Shakespeare. Heck, toward the end of the play, Shakespeare describes him fighting like a fiend in the final battle and slaying all these fake ‘decoy’ versions of Henry Tudor as he tries to find the real one.
A guy who fights like that is not a weakling who can scarcely lift a sword. And that’s a long-winded way of saying I’m good with Derek Wilson’s muscles. I’m also good with his performance. More than good. I loved it—and that had nothing to do with his guns. He was just the right combination of charming, chilling and over the top.
Meanwhile, this whole muscle thing got me thinking: what kind of assumptions do we bring to a play or book that we know well? Have you ever rejected a portrayal of a beloved character because it just didn’t match the vision you had in your head? Did a remake or reboot ever leave you cold? I love the Star Trek reboot, for example. But the 2005 film version of Pride & Prejudice just doesn’t do it for me.
I’m going to keep asking myself this question whenever I see a revival or any other remake: How open am I to a different look or fresh interpretation of a favorite character?