Last Saturday, I went to see a free production of Shakespeare’s classic play Richard III at the Wyatt Auditorium on the UC Davis campus. I’d never been to this venue before, but since I do enjoy this play and have a particular interest in the historical character of King Richard III, this gave me a great chance to sketch this old building from the inside, and watch some great drama too. This was produced by undergraduates in the UC Davis Theater & Dance department, a company called ‘Shakespeare on a Shoestring’ (‘SOS’), directed by acting professor Bella Merlin, formerly with the National Theatre in London, and Kevin Adamski. When I was a student of drama back in my own university days, I participated in a large production of Richard III, not as an actor but as the props and art assistant. I helped design this vast stage floor composed of newspaper cuttings, I drew maps of battlefields, and I remember having to go to my local Territorial Army center to borrow some militaristic gear from the quartermaster, which included a massive and very heavy wooden table, which – me being without a car or van – I carried by myself for nearly a mile. I had actually intended on bringing it across London on the tube; that never happened. I’m not so daft these days, I hope. This production, however, was a little more spartan – and that is how I like it. The direction was excellent, so even in the rare moments when the acting was less consistent a beat was never lost, and the scenes were almost always compelling. Richard (aka the Duke of Gloucester) himself was excellently played by Ryan Geraghty, every bit the villain Shakespeare’s text intended him to be. The most striking element was the music, inventive percussion provided at dramatic moments by the beating of simple objects, wooden blocks, plastic drums, metal pipes. The play was performed in its entirety, from what I could tell, clocking in at two and a half hours (with a brief interval). Naturally, I sketched.
I hadn’t intended on sketching on the program itself, but it just seemed like the appropriate thing to do, though it wasn’t suited for watercolour, obviously. One problem with sketching a performance, even of a play you know, is that you are never quite sure how long the scene will remain in the position you decide to sketch. Therefore I concentrated most of my time on the theatre itself, with its half-round seating broken by large wooden posts that often obstructed what I could see (there is no getting around that, for almost any spectator). So the scene I chose was the corpse scene between Richard and the widow of the late King, though Richard was actually hidden behind one of those posts for much of it. Therefore when I sketched him, I waited until a later scene when he was giving a more prominent speech to the audience. I drew him again, later in the play, on grey paper – though halfway through this sketch the lights went dark (having been unchanged the entire play) for the ‘ghosts’ scene, so I finished it in the battle scene (adding in his metal fighting stick, and those famous lines). It was a fun finale, with high-tempo percussion over a slow-motion duel between King Richard and Richmond, the future King Henry IV, founder of the Tudor dynasty (I must admit I was rooting for Richard). I can’t wait for the next one, Richard IV!
Of course, King Rick has been in the news of late, as you may have heard, in quite amazing circumstances. His body was lost for centuries, his true character – of which we mostly know Tudor accounts – lost to myth and dramaturgy, his demise known to us only that he was the last English king to die on the battlefield. That battlefield – Bosworth – was also lost to history, until just a couple of years ago, and last year a skeleton was dug up in an archaeological dig beneath a car park in Leicester, part of a medieval church long since buried. Once it was realised this was the church where the defeated king had been buried, it was an exciting coincidence when a skeleton was found which had the fabled curvature of the spine which Richard was alleged to have (but many believed this to be simply an imagination of the Tudors). This ‘deformity’, as Shakespeare would have us believe, destined him to be the pantomime villain, who would go on the murder his nephews in the Tower. When it was announced recently that, after extensive DNA study, these remains were of the lost King, it proved he did have scoliosis of the spine, making one shoulder appear higher than the other. We were also able to learn more about the manner in which he was killed, where each blow hit his body, and how his face was spared so that they could identify the body to prove that Richard III was dead. They didn’t have DNA mapping or CSI teams back in 1485. After all these centuries however, this enigmatic and controversial figure of English history is really and truly back, and still being talked about. Though Shakespeare’s play is undoubtedly a Tudor fantasy, its contribution to Richard’s legend and legacy is unavoidable,
“And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days…” (Richard III, Act 1, Scene 1)