“Mirthful comic shows”: Original Practices, Richard III, and the Curtain

“The worm of conscience still begnaw thy soul!”
—Queen Margaret, I.iii

My brain is abuzz with all I have learned this past weekend at the inaugural Blackfriars X Southwest conference in Austin, Texas. The event was housed at a unique venue on Lake Austin, the Curtain playhouse, which is run by the troupe known as The Baron’s Men. Built by an eccentric patron some decades ago, the venue is a recreated space akin to the Rose theatre with a longer thrust and a capacity of nearly 300 when counting groundlings. It is part of that generation of recreated venues that followed the Shakespeare festival in Ashland, Oregon, but came up before we had discovered the remains of the actual Rose and Globe playhouses in Southwark. So this Curtain is part of the American imaginary of Shakespearean theatre and participates in its cultural conscription rather than as museum theatre.

Baron’s employs some “original practices” (OP) elements (as Mark Rylance called them) in their space, as outlined by director Joe Falocco before a recent performance of Richard III. They emphasize universal lighting, relatively bare-stage dramaturgy, and a balcony architectural feature in order to enable a more active and participatory experience for playgoers. The space itself is situated at the bottom of a gravel path in a park, appealing to a more rustic and informal experience. Many of my fellow patrons brought their own box-wine complete with spout and were more than happy to hiss and halloo in response to different moments in the play. OP stagings, as you might see at the American Shakespeare Center in Virginia or Shakespeare’s Globe in London, try to make the most of bawdy humor and take explicit direction from the text—what I call elsewhere dramaturgically sympathetic reading. The same emphasis was true of this production. For example, careful casting meant a bald actor playing Lord Hastings makes the most of the line “my hair doth stand on end” in response to Queen Margaret’s prophetic curses. Acknowledging the limits of doing the last in a tetralogy of plays, the troupe appended some of Margaret’s material from 2 Henry VI based on a performance tradition going back to the early eighteenth century.

Richard (Andy Bond) woos Lady Anne (Taylor Flanagan).

Richard III as a play and as a historical figure has been in the media a great deal over the last few years. There has been the Kevin Spacey performance of the role that led up to his House of Cards series, in which the lead is similarly Machiavellian. There was the rather amazing discovery of the king’s body and royal re-interment in 2012. (The short documentary of the discovery, Richard III: The King in the Car Park, is really amazing and, fortunately, available as VOD.) The reinterment caused quite a stir, resulting in a legal battle over the manner and placement of the body. Many were upset over the reverence and eventual royal carriage funeral (which turned into a major televised event, a grotesquely “mirthful comic show”) given to a centuries-dead king who was inarguably a tyrant, not to mention murderer of kin and children. Such debates make a staging of Richard III especially timely in that it gives audiences a chance to consider the political problems produced by the War of the Roses.

Richard III (Andy Bond) employes his audience.

The standouts of the Baron’s production were Andy Bond as Richard and Leanna Holmqvist as Queen Margaret. Both tapped into a royal charisma typically reserved for Gloucester which made the production an interesting balance not only in terms of gendered rulers, but also to what extent leadership is ultimately performative. The entire production did not revolve around Richard’s ability, as can often happen. He was marked only by a limp and lean to suggest a short leg but none of the other physical aberrations with which the historical figure is famous. In these ways—in gender and ability—both performers amplified and seemed to be attempting to counteract that ways in which they both are a “slave to nature” as they try to marshall political power. Emphasizing the precariousness of the crown and its quick movement from one to another were three excellently timed crown drops: with the killing of a king, the crown was made to roll, but not off the stage, but would stop on its side in the foreground as a beautiful dramaturgical image of Shakespeare’s “hollow crown” analogy from other plays.

Richard (Andy Bond) and Richmond (James Byers) are visited by ghosts before battle.

Many recreated theatres today are affiliated with a university, company, or festival. The Curtain and its Men are not, and so have a freedom in both their artistic goals and the manner in which they present their plays. With additional academic trappings, the environment of a Baron’s play is something between a national park hike and Medieval Times™. Audiences were far more convivial, comfortable, and I suspect feel less of the pressure to perform a kind of learned, conscientious, and attentive set of behaviors linked with high art. Neither high nor low, Baron’s invites its audiences to merely be a part of the moment—a thing possibly all that Margaret and Richard could have ever asked.

  • The Baron’s Men’s William Shakespeare’s Richard III plays at the Curtain playhouse in Austin through April 16, 2016.
  • Want to learn more about OP? A great place to start is Jeremy Lopez’s article, “A Partial Theory of Original Practice,” in Shakespeare Survey 61 (Nov 2008): 302-17. 
  • See the video below for the initial BBC news report of the discovery of Richard III’s remains.