Since I was a Lower Sixth student studying Richard III, two things have been very clear to me: first, I love Shakespeare’s plays, and second, that Richard was my all-time favourite character.
It was Richard’s brazen soliloquies, through which he made the audience his accessory in his schemes, that made me realise how effective Shakespeare was in creating compelling characters - and also sealed my fate in terms of what I wanted to achieve as an actor one day. It became my ultimate dream to play him. I must admit, I did not expect to get the chance to play him quite so soon, nor that it would be his entire arc (nor that it would happen in the online circumstances of the pandemic).
Usually, we are introduced to Richard of Gloucester at the start of Richard III with the “Winter of our Discontent” soliloquy, and though he certainly covers the basics of his story up until that point, for most of us he steps on the stage the villain already - and he does declare himself as one.
Though my own journey with him certainly started with an explosive murder (do check out Henry VI Part 2 on the Shakes-scene YouTube channel for an intense scene choreographed by our legendary Alexandra Kataigida), actually when we first see Richard, he is simply a dedicated son to his father the Duke of York, and does not enjoy fighting any more or less than the rest of his family (which is still to say… well, a lot).
To me as the actor playing him, the loyalty to his father seemed to outweigh any sort of other ambition.
The scene where he finds out his father was murdered could certainly be played as him not caring, as he says: “I cannot weep. But, as many of us know, grief is not so simple, and I felt convinced he was devastated and shocked - however, of the five stages of grief, he jumps straight to anger: “Tears then for babes; blows and revenge for me” as Richard the Killing Machine is unleashed.
More evidence in the text lead me to my interpretation, siginficantly his genuine horror at Rutland’s murder. Much of his viciousness in battle seems rooted in his righteous anger at the ruthless (and needless) murder of a child.
Definitely a bit of a contrast to the way he orders the murder of his own nephews with not a moment of hesitation
To me, what also appears to harden him is the way his brothers behave once their father is no longer around. Richard is revolted at the way Edward caused more war due to his stubborn decision to marry whom he wanted, plus embarrassing Warwick and losing “The Kingmaker” as an ally, and I think the way George betrays his own family certainly stuck in Richard’s throat.
For me, this explains some of his mindset towards his brothers in Richard III. I feel like he never forgave George for his betrayal, and used that sense of George as a traitor for my emotional life regarding him. It’s also notable, to me, that Richard is used as the executioner for the Yorks. With the exception of King Henry 6th’s son (where in fact all three of the Yorks get their hands bloody) he is the one to dispatch their enemies. He is fully aware of this too, since he hastily leaves the battlefield at the end to seek out Henry 6th in the tower. It is his part to play and he does it without question. When he is later called a dog, perhaps it can be interpreted as “attack dog” for the Yorks; a weapon to be used.
It is on the battlefield that Richard feels at home. With this in mind, it becomes incredibly clear just how out of his element he is when he gives his “Winter of our discontent” speech. Here he is, at court, no battles to win, nowhere to turn his anger and aggression. He grew up in the war and he does not know how to not be at war. In my mind, Richard cannot switch gears enough to get out of the “war mindset” even with his own family. It opened up the character to me in a way I was not expecting and gave a very different meaning to the line: “Because I cannot flatter and look fair, Smile in men’s faces, smooth, deceive and cog,[…] I must be held a rancorous enemy”
It would be easy to say Richard is lying here, especially considering he just wooed Anne with smooth lies. But what if he means it?
What if Richard is really mainly a warrior, a fighter who revels in battle (a word the first folio in his part spells as “Battaile” to give it extra importance) and once we get to RIII, in his pain at being stuck in a world he does not understand, he lashes out at everyone around him?
For me, when we got to the battle at the end, as an actor fully aware that my character was going to his doom, I felt an odd sense of relief. By that point Richard is so tortured by his conscience, that dying in battle as a warrior, back in his old fighting clothes, is a comfort.
There are few actors I know of who got to explore Richard’s entire arc - although such names as Ian Holm and Benedict Cumberbatch stand out. Usually we see RIII in isolation and I feel we lose a lot of his contradictions that way. He is a loyal son, and at the same time he is a vicious killer. His complexities open up so many doors to performers when you go through his whole journey like we did, and I can honestly say that he is very much still my favourite character after all this. There is so much more still to be explored with him and his tragedy definitely starts during the Henry VI plays.
So, yes, if asked, I would love to play Richard again - perhaps even more than Rosalind or Viola, if you can believe it. There is so much depth still to be found in the way Shakespeare built this character - more villainy, but also more humanity.