John Douglas Thompson Reshapes Richard III

A Critical Dialogue Focused on S&Co's Production

By: - Aug 27, 2010

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Two summers ago we were rivited by the performance of John Douglas Thompson in Othello at Shakespeare & Company. He returned last summer in another run of that show as well as a second play The Dreamer Examines His Pillow.

We met for an interview which initiated a continuing dialogue. In New York last fall we attended a performance of The Emperor Jones.  We had discussed the play by phone and e mail both before and after seeing a performance. The review incorporated his ideas in the revival of the O'Neill play. I made a suggestion that he see the Brando film Burn which touched on a similar theme. Today he commented that he had finally seen it a couple of weeks ago through Netflix and we discussed the similarities to Emperor Jones

In anticipation of his performance of Richard III this summer at Shakespeare & Company I suggested that we might meet for a series of interviews. The first of these meetings was meant as a planning session in which we sketched out possible topics. The edited notes were sent back to him and we were to move on from there. The next meeting occured on August 6 and focused on Richard III.

It proved to be a struggle. I had issues with his interpreation of the role and was frank about that in the review. Many of my comments involved the notion of the Olivier film as a paradigm for the role. The more so since I have viewed it a number of times, taught it to students, and read Olivier's book on acting.

John on his part prevailed that much had happened in the approach to the play in the decades since. He also pointed out that like many I tended to see Richard in isolation and not how he evolved from the earlier plays of Henry VI and his complex role in the War of the Roses.

What follows in the transcript below is not an interview but rather a collaboration. There was a lot of dialogue and background that led up to and followed the meeting on August 6. One of the ground rules that I suggested was his ability to edit the text prior to publication. There would to be approval and resolution on both sides prior to publication.

Not to say that the conflicts and issues have been resolved, indeed they are ongoing. At this point, however, there is clarity and precision in the statements. Working together today was a fascinating and exhilerating process.  We would discuss and debate lines as to what was added or deleted. He insisted on being quoted in context.  There was the sense of an actor and director going over the script of a play and making the kind of changes that result in a sharper performance.

While I have gone through this editing process with writers it was my first such experience with an actor. There were also opportunities to have a dialogue about crucial scenes and moments in the play and how he interpreted them. That would indeed be an entirely other chapter or project. Compelling material evaporated as we concentrated on the task of editing this text.

We discussed picking this up when he appears in Antony and Cleopatra in Hartford this fall. By then I expect, having endured this process, we will be more adept at how to advance the discourse.

Reading between the lines you will sense tension and conflict. It is genuine. This has been a complex and engaging tussle. But I feel that not trying to edit it out or mimimize differences sharpens the focus and adds human interest and drama to the dialogue. Perhaps the intensity derives from a passion for the work and willingness to ask tough questions and risk collateral damage. As I often stated to John it is worth risking the mind and body if it helps us to come to a better understanding of the work.

What makes this struggle all the more important is the expanding recognition that John is emerging as one of the foremost interpreters of Shakespeare and classically trained actors of his generation. His Richard this summer offered a radical new version of the role. The review by Ben Brantley in the New York Times emphaticaly confirmed this. I only wish I had been that perceptive and gotten it right the first time.  But I feel that the dialolgue that follows documents to that remarkable performance and as such takes its place in this history.

John Douglas Thompson
August 6/ 27 2010
Richard III

Charles Giuliano Richard is a violent and complex person. How do you rid yourself of him between performances? I thought that some of the moments and emotions recalled what you did with The Emperor Jones.

John  Douglas Thompson For a person to take what they are on stage, a nice person or not into the world, that can be dangerous proposition.

Regarding Emperor Jones, for me one character leads to another and  that brings out  similar choices, emotional landscape, and physicality. I own those things as part of my process.

CG Can we talk about that opening scene in Richard when you deliver “Now is the Winter of Our Discontent” while lying on your back?

JT First let me state this.  I think you as an individual belong to the school of Olivier’s Richard and that has been your template.  People have moved far beyond that when they look at Richard. They are obviously honoring Olivier but have gone past it and through it, in an attempt to create a Richard that may be more contemporary and speaks to our times. In the spirit of that I was looking at a Richard who I wanted to try to justify his malevolence, ambition, and destructive nature. So I thought of trying to create something not as novelty but, symbolic significance in  having Richard lying down on his back for the famous “Now is the winter.” It was more him pondering and almost day dreaming of this new political climate that he now finds himself in. My attempt was to introduce Richard to the audience in a way that would be free of his anger so you can get more of who this guy is and chiefly to introduce Richard to the audience where you could meet him before you meet his deformity.

CG Why on your back?

JT He is lying down day dreaming like in a bed or on the grass in a park.  He’s just lying down.  His physicality for the speech doesn’t have to be perpendicular. You could have a Richard in a chair or on a ladder.  You could have him upside down. There are myriad ways you can present this guy.

CG How? Give me a sense of the possibilities.

JT I remember in a production of Richard when I played Radcliffe there was a wonderful actor Wallace Acton who played Richard at Shakespeare Theatre in D.C. He did his piece in a chair with his back to the audience. Which I found compelling. You wanted to know who is this person? What is going on? You’re really engaged. So I wanted to take that and expound upon it. At first it started with me sitting on the ground with my back to audience. That evolved to me reclining on my back and almost speaking the first few lines of the monologue like I was recounting a fairy tale or  nursery rhyme.  Ultimately, at the top of the play  Richard is unhappy with the current political/social situation. He is in the middle of peace time, and where does he fit in to this new world order? He doesn’t because he’s a warrior and it’s peace time.

If you read Henry VI, Part One, Part Two and  Three  it’s the  beginning of  the War of Roses. The feud between the  Yorks and  the Lancasters.  Richard emerges in Henry VI,  Part Two.  One of his attributes is that he is a fierce warrior. One of the best even with his deformity. In battle after battle they talk about Richard and his amazing attributes on the field.

I want to point out the fact that when Shakespeare developed the character you just saw this ferocious warrior in Henry VI Parts 1 and 2. In Henry VI Part 3 Shakespeare develops the character  of Richard and gives him ambition and an understanding of his self and his deformity and his relationship to the world he lives in.

CG Where does Richard reside in the canon? How would you place and evaluate him in the roles?

JT Mentally, physically and emotionally he is one of most challenging characters to play, and by far the richest.  He is in 75 to 85 percent of the scenes and has most of the dialogue and, in addition  the actor has to bring to life Richard’s deformity. What you may not have seen in Olivier is the extent of the deformity and what that may have cost him.

CG What is the degree of deformity? As Olivier played him he was fairly nimble. There is a scene for example where he slithers down a rope to confront someone.

JT You, Charles, have to go back and read  Henry VI, I, 2 and 3. see what came before Richard III. Everything is suggested in these texts about Richard’s deformity.  I am a textually bound individual.  It’s all there.  He has a withered arm that doesn’t function. He has a severe form of scoliosis.  He was  born with it or it was created over time. One leg is shorter than the other.  Anthony Sher of the famous Royal Shakespeare Company did what is now considered one of the definitive interpretations of Richard.

(“Antony Sher's bravura portrayal of the villainous king for the Royal Shakespeare Company is the town's hottest black-market ticket…Yet Mr. Sher's triumph is only one of four acclaimed Shakespeare productions available here this summer…

“The stars of all four plays must fight an audience's memories of Laurence Olivier - especially at the RSC, whose repertory coincides precisely with Mr. Olivier's eternal triumvirate of Shakespeare films. And no one has approached the task more strenuously and self-consciously than Mr. Sher, who has even published a diary recounting his year-long efforts to wrest the role from its foremost modern interpreter. In the view of many, he has succeeded. Armed with two crutches as well as a gleaming black hump, the small, boundlessly energetic Mr. Sher suggests not merely a spider but much of the insect kingdom in his intensely physical performance.

“When scuttling about on all fours, this Richard is a cockroach; when raising his extended arms in mock piety, he becomes a praying mantis. Sometimes Mr. Sher deploys the crutches as if he were a manic pole-vaulter, leaping about the stage like a maimed, mutant grasshopper. The result is an uncommonly fearsome villain whose grotesque deeds and distorted physique are accompanied by an aura of sado-masochistic sexuality.

“But perhaps because Mr. Sher has played too long before adoring throngs, his Richard is not always in the giving vein. His vocal delivery lacks variety and wit; we never see the chameleonlike qualities that allow him to charm and bamboozle those on his path to tyrannical power. The mostly lackluster supporting cast and staging are further drains on the play's melodramatic ferocity. As clunkily directed by Bill Alexander, most scenes take place dead center on an awkward set that cannot be cleared away for the battle of Bosworth Field. Like Andrew Lloyd Webber's hit musical on roller skates, ''Starlight Express,'' this crutch-propelled ''Richard III'' leaves one wondering if the English overvalue any production in which performers use gymnastic means of locomotion.”

(Frank Rich, The New York Times, June 26, 1985.)

Also Simon Russell Beale.

CG Have you seen them perform?

JT Yes I saw Sher on film.  Beale is one of my favorite actors and I have seen him several times. I am merely trying to add another interpretation of Richard into the post Olivier era. You don’t have to like it. That’s all a matter of taste but I’m trying to give you the gist of it.

CG You keep saying like or not like. But that’s not what this is about. It is a matter of issues and concerns. If you follow the arguments of Wittgenstein and the theories of formalism there is an attempt to treat the work of art with objectivity. Once it is created by the artist it is in a sense independent of the creator. It must be viewed in its own terms. The creator is not the ultimate authority on the creation. If that were true we would just have the published thoughts, diary and autobiography of the creator. Instead we have shelves of books analyzing and interpreting the work. The approach of formalism is not involved with the personality or biography of the creator. The artist is not considered the ultimate authority on the creation. A formalist approach avoids dealing directly with the artist as it may influence the process of objective judgment. So this is not so simple as me liking or not liking a performance. It is more about getting to the issues of the performance and interpretation of the character. In post modernism there is the effort to deconstruct and get at the intentionality of the work which the artist may or not be aware of. There is meaning embedded in the work which the critic or historian attempts to explore and clarify.

JT  I am not trying to channel what people think of the work and I accept that you weren’t excited about the work that’s your prerogative. I’m not going to win you to my side nor will you win me to yours.

It’s not a life or death issue. There is some fun to it. What you do is apply your craft and  seek to become better at it. It is not the end of the work but the beginning of the exploration. I’m an actor not a surgeon.

CG My father was a surgeon.

JT All I have done is to create another interpretation of Richard. It is a collaborative art form and it is our right to do that and other actors and companies are doing the same thing.  This is what we are doing. Is it better? I don’t know.  I’m trying my best and want to add to the debate/ discussion of new and diverse interpretations of Richard III.

CG In what way is this a more contemporary Richard?

JT I don’t want to stand still. It starts with looking at the play and the language and trying to create something from that. What I’m striving to create in this production is a Richard affected by five particular things and they are

1. His relationship to his deformity.
2  The lack of a significant mother figure.
3  The difficulty in his  relationships with women.
4  Confronting his warrior nature and how that fits  in this new political climate of peace.
5  His desire to right the realm.

I think Richard feels he would be a better ruler than Edward his brother who is now being  influenced by his wife Elizabeth Woodville, who Richard hates. The Woodvilles are his enemies. I have compassion for him. You have to find compassion for the character. I have to look at Richard and the fact that he missed out on having a mother who cared for him, and grew up with a severe deformity. We see it now in a contemporary basis when a child is in a situation where there is no love in the home and the destructive force of that.

It often leads to psychotic and sociopathic behavior, in that sense, Richard is a victim.

No it’s a part of the dialogue to understand him. I’m not coming to any absolutes. If you couple the lack of love from your mother and we know now from studies, facts and reports what that can do to a child in adolescence and manhood.  Couple that with his deformity and how does someone live with that deformity?

Buckingham doesn’t kill the princes as he had been ordered to do. With Richard you’re dealing with a psychopath. Buckinghams’ only assurance of Richard’s favor is to do his bidding, once he stops, he is no longer of use to Richard.  Richard has lost  the ability for empathy, remorse and reflection. Richard’s upbringing: No motherly love, cursed by nature, and positive nurturing absent since his father’s death leaves him missing the trinity of mother/ love/ nature.

My interpretation is solely rooted in Shakespeare’s text. That is your biggest informer as an actor. At least for me. That text opens up and informs the foundation of the character.

CG How do you prepare for a role. What kind of reading and research is involved?

JT There is preparation, academic prep that starts, the more that you inform the mind, the more can drop into the body. This a knowledge based art if you will. I have Winston Churchill’s  History of the  English Speaking People. There are chapters on the War of the Roses, the Yorks and Lancasters as well as a chapter on Richard III and Edward IV. What Shakespeare put in the plays is very different than actual history. The Richard he created for the play is very different from the real Richard. As different as you and I. There is a movement to rehabilitate Richard. The Richard III Society has branches in the US and  Britain and one in NY. They are trying to refurbish him as he really was and not as he was presented in the play. To Shakespeare’s credit and longevity people now credit Richard III to his version.

CG What about the seduction scene with Anne. Where Olivier was a seducer you seem to assault and overwhelm her.

JT Richard says he’s not a lover and never has been. Because of his deformity he hasn’t cultivated relationships with women like other men have. He hasn’t even been in a sexual relationship.

CG Is Richard a Virgin?

JT A virgin? I’m not going that far but with Lady Anne he is saying I’m just going to go for it. As a psychopath he believes he loves her in that moment. He feels that he killed all these people for her. It’s his proviso that I did it because I loved you.

He gives her the sword then he says if you don’t kill me I’ll do it myself. In the seduction he’s willing to go that far. I can’t play this guy as though he’s going to win everything. I’m just giving it a shot. I give it my all because I need a wife if I’m going to be a king. I do love her.  I do mean it in that moment. Richard is all about the present moment.