I play the devil,” Danai Gurira’s Richard III crows early on in the Shakespeare in the Park production named after the would-be king, who plots to eliminate anyone standing in his way. Richard’s “play” in those opening scenes feels less like theater and more like a video game. With Richard as our avatar, we level up as each villainous task is completed: Get brother George (Paul Niebanck) to the tower, woo the widowed Anne (Ali Stroker), dispatch Lord Hastings (Ariel Shafir). And empathizing with Richard’s criminal frivolity should be easy—at least for anyone who’s happily played a bad guy in a video game.
It helps that Gurira, best known for her roles in The Walking Dead and Black Panther, but who’s also a venerable playwright in her own right, is so completely appealing in her cruelty, her grins and grimaces letting us in on every Machiavellian machination within Richard’s mind. After an affable chat with the young princes who stand between Richard and the throne, Gurira muses to the audience, “So wise, so young, they say, do never live long,” as if creating her own universe of self-serving logic while she flashes a gleaming smile to the audience.
Richard’s allure is all the more essential to a production, directed by Slave Play’s Robert O’Hara, that slackens whenever Gurira is off stage. It’s a fairly traditionally period production (excepting a medieval line dance by way of the Stanky Leg to celebrate Richard’s coronation) with a trapdoor and turntable, designed by Myung Hee Cho, that get plenty of mileage. But the pantheon of lords and dukes and earls tend to lump together; it’s easier to look to Richard for smirking guidance on who’s who as they come up on his royal hit list rather than try to keep track of them ourselves. The assertively scene-stealing Sharon Washington as the vanquished Queen Margaret, however, excoriates Richard with searing specificity.
If O’Hara has a guiding concept, it’s in the dismantling and displacement of Shakespeare’s treatment of disability. Richard, usually portrayed with hunchback and limp, appears able-bodied here: O’Hara is uninterested in the troubling link between moral and physical deformity that the text emphasizes again and again, with Richard’s own mother describing him as her “false glass, which grieves me when I see my shame in him.”
Instead, O’Hara’s casting confronts Shakespeare’s linkage of ability and goodness: Queen Anne (Ali Stroker) struts across the stage in a wheelchair; Gregg Mogzala, an actor with cerebral palsy, plays both King Edward IV and Richmond, who ultimately defeats Richard; and Matthew August Jeffers, an actor with dwarfism, is amusingly suave and then feelingly repentant as the assassin Tyrrell. Most significantly, this seems to be a kingdom in which most everyone is fluent in sign language; both Richard’s mother (Monique Holt) and one of his hired cronies are Deaf, and some scenes are performed in ASL without spoken translation.
And though it’s meaningful on its own—and an extension of Joseph Papp’s inclusive casting in early Shakespeare in the Park productions—to cast diversely abled actors in traditionally able-bodied roles, it’s a little puzzling that O’Hara transforms a play in which a character receives constant abuse because of his physical disability into one taking place in a utopia where all bodies are universally embraced. That makes for a Richard III that has a lot to say about our ableist world but not much to offer to change our understanding of the play. Still, whenever Gurira is on stage, Richard transfixes us with his coy cruelty and we can’t look away.
East of the Delacorte at the Park Avenue Armory, though, you could spend the whole of Robert Icke’s Hamlet looking in the wrong place. A transfer of a production this critic saw in 2017 at London’s Almeida Theatre starring Andrew Scott, Icke’s Hamlet remains most distinctive for some bold directorial choices that seem to submerge the actors rather than empower them.
Icke’s modern day, tech-heavy emphasis on surveillance—characters are constantly watching and listening in on each other—isn’t exactly innovative. Gregory Doran made pretty much the same visual and thematic choices in his acclaimed 2009 Royal Shakespeare Company starring David Tennant, adapted for film. And between the hulking screens above and around the proscenium, the often-distracting action taking place behind transparent doors at the back of the stage, and the tendency for characters to creep on and off to eavesdrop and spy, there’s endless opportunity for audiences to look so closely they stop listening.
Icke seems on more solid ground staging the technology than the text: This Hamlet is a disappointingly humorless production, but the funniest moment comes from Claudius (Angus Wright) struggling to watch a video message on a tablet. And since Horatio (Joshua Higgott) films the royal family watching the play-within-a-play, audiences are treated to a scintillating close-up livestream of Claudius’s rage at seeing his crime publicly restaged.
After that scene, there’s a temporary lift in energy as the play takes on the pace of a thriller, but an unnecessary second intermission slows things down again in time for a zany, dreamlike conclusion in which all the characters, Claudius included, seem to dance together in heaven. (All the while, the soundscape oscillates between Bob Dylan songs, which sometimes blast over the dialogue, and over-intrusive moody underscoring.)
Icke’s heavy-handed choices often force his actors to play the conceits rather than the characters, which means that even Alex Lawther’s Hamlet doesn’t get the chance to develop across the three-and-a-half hour running time. Kirsty Rider’s Ophelia gives her mad speech about gesturing to a new self-inflicted wound on her body each time she references another species of flower. Claudius’s soliloquized confession now is delivered aloud with steely cockiness while Hamlet holds him at gunpoint. The parade of directorial interferences like these keep the audience alert but the meaning of the text at bay.
Lawther’s initially weepy, occasionally shrewdly likeable Hamlet is fixated on betrayals: Claudius’s betrayal of his brother; Gertrude’s (Lise Bruneau, stepping in at the reviewed performance for Jennifer Ehle) betrayal of her family; Ophelia’s apparent betrayal of Hamlet’s trust. And perhaps because Hamlet’s scenes with Rosencrantz (Calum Finlay) and Guildenstern (Jacqueline Jarrold at the reviewed performance) are a slow-motion study in betrayal—Hamlet recognizes their falseness almost before they do—those moments strangely work the best. In these exchanges, Lawther and the play come into focus and Icke, in one of the production’s most useful innovations, sharply differentiates Hamlet’s relationship with each of his former classmates: Guildenstern is a close companion, Rosencrantz an annoying acquaintance. With these relationships highlighted, Hamlet’s ultimate fatal betrayal of the pair lands with a more shocking sense of symmetry than usual.
Lawther’s performance seems guided in its final half-hour by Hamlet’s coming to terms with the “not to be.” In preparing for a duel he senses may end in his death, Hamlet is suddenly radiantly calm, as if he has overcome his grief at his father’s death by finding peace with the prospect of his own. Is grief not, after all, Lawther’s performance asks in the moments he has space to craft it without intervention, a displacement of the fear of our own eventual demise?
Icke’s most moving work occurs in moments of silence. The dumbshow ahead of the play-within-a-play is often cut these days, but it appears here as a tender pantomime between David Rintoul (who also plays the ghost) and Marty Cruickshank charting a relationship from courtship to empty nestdom. When Hamlet tries to get Gertrude to see the ghost of his father, he throws his arms around both of them, a desperate group hug, as if he’s clawing to restore his lost nuclear family back into being. Icke echoes that gesture later in the play when Laertes (Luke Treadaway), standing in his sister Ophelia’s grave, reaches around her corpse to try to choke Hamlet. It is another damaged family embrace, in a way, as refracted through the warped prism of loss, and, for that moment at least, we’re looking tragedy in the face.