The action of Richard III follows on the heels of Shakespeare's Henry VI in which the houses of Lancaster and York clash over the throne of England in what came to be called the "War of the Roses." In an apparent victory for the Yorkists, Richard's older brother was crowned King Edward IV. It is to this state of affairs that Richard refers when he says, "Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this sun of York." But Richard, a deformed Machiavellian charmer, is not content to while away his days with "idle pleasures" and sets in motion his plan to take the throne. First, having secretly arranged his imprisonment, Richard consoles his older brother Clarence en route to the Tower of London. He woos Lady Anne beside the corpse of one of his victims, Anne's father-in-law King Henry VI, gloating that he will win the woman whose husband he has also recently slain. Richard then accuses King Edward's wife, Elizabeth, and her relatives of conspiring against Clarence. Seeing through his deceit old Margaret, the former queen, hurls prophetic curses at the "poisonous, bunch-backed toad." Fearing King Edward's probable change of heart, Richard guarantees his plan's success by arranging the murder of his brother in the Tower. A gravely ill Edward IV attempts to protect his sons and heirs by calling together the powers of his kingdom, insisting that the divisive factions make peace. Richard humbly vows loyalty, before shocking the company with news of Clarence's death at Edward's royal command. Thinking that he is responsible for the death of his brother, the king is helped off to his own death-bed. Richard, now Lord Protector, begins his move against the family and allies of his brother's wife and widow, Queen Elizabeth. He eliminates Elizabeth's brother, Lord Rivers, and her son from a previous marriage, Lord Grey. He proclaims Hastings, advocate for the Queen's progeny, to be a traitor. At the same time, he entices his lackey, the Duke of Buckingham, to spread rumors of illegitimacy about Edward and his heirs. The boys are transported to the Tower "for their own protection." Having undermined confidence in the succession, Richard woos the Lord Mayor and citizens, piously accepting the crown as Richard III. The new king wants the princes dead but Buckingham hesitates at the suggestion. Richard engages another to kill them and Buckingham leaves London to join the revolt led by Richmond. Richard's wife, Lady Anne, has recently and conveniently died and Richard asks Elizabeth for the hand of her daughter knowing that marriage to his royal niece will further legitimize his claim to the throne. Elizabeth seems to consent. Richmond returns to England in force, prompting the King to muster troops still loyal to him. The night before the battle of Bosworth Field, Richard's vengeful, ghostly victims creep into his dreams. With the dawn, our villainous hero shakes off self-doubt and fights bravely. The future of England depends upon his success or failure.
Richard of Gloucester is, according to director James Symons, the meanest dog in the junkyard. Symons taps our contemporary sensibilities with his interpretation of this Machiavellian villain. Richard is far more than the guy we love to hate. He is the manifestation of the corruption that fed the Wars of the Roses. As such, he becomes a horror to end all horrors, a figure to be purged. Richard's cold-hearted cynicism and the opportunism of the play's other characters are enhanced by David Barber's settings. The grit and tonality of such films as Dark City and Blade Runner inspire Barber's design. The skeletal structure of the set is fitted with panels that "dissolve" thanks to Michael Wellborn's lighting, thereby revealing layers of a dark world beyond the stage. Wellborn's design enhances the difference between Richard's public and private self, alternately hiding and revealing the secrets that abound in his court. Barber and Wellborn combine their talents, creating and illuminating shape and mood that echo the brutal past. The appearance of the characters also draws a parallel between a violent past and the equally frightening possibilities of the present. Patrick Holt's costume designs suggest medieval and renaissance times but lend themselves to modern materials. The sound design of Kevin Dunayer draws us into this universe gone awry, where morality, loyalty and love are tied to ambition. As Shakespeare intended, the frightening visage of Old Queen Margaret haunts the production, reminding us that old horrors may demand new sacrifice before balance can be restored.