From the Nashville Shakespeare Festival

Pop-Upright Shakespeare’s Richard III: Historical Tragedy for Fun

The Nashville Shakespeare Festival does more than their Summer Shakespeare. Besides partnering with local universities for winter or spring plays, they do staged readings. Or in this case, a “pop-upright” performance, with actors moving around the stage with book in hand and with minimal props or costumes. The play, including a brief intermission, took about 2 hours and 15 minutes.

This took place on January 27 at The Loading Dock, a cozy coffeehouse off of Wedgewood in sight of 65,  full of plants and local art for sale. My americano was bright and my breakfast bagel sandwich delicious with thick bacon and the correct egg to cheese ratio. Downstairs from the cafe is a lobby/gallery area between Arde Motors, some offices, and Killjoy’s Booze-Free Beverage Shop (which had a steady stream of unobtrusive customers during the performance). The stage was not raised, but an empty rectangle at the head of the room with the actors’ chairs lining two sides, facing each other. Comfortable chairs for the audience were set out with an aisle down the middle. There were no stage lights, no microphones. I was glad of that: in such an intimate space sound systems are always too loud and create a sense of artificial distance. Besides, Shakespearean actors know how to project to the audience, and we could hear clearly.

As the show started, Denice Hicks, the Artistic Director of the Nashville Shakespeare Festival, told us that this pop-upright hadn’t had a rehearsal; the words would be Shakespeare’s, but much of the acting would be improvised. The audience was invited to be vocal, to react, and specifically to sing “dum-dum-DUM” each time someone said “the Tower” referring to the Tower of London. The audience actually did, and people booed and hissed with cheerful gusto when Richard the III was crowned. Some people in the crowd read along with the performance, following the words on their phone or with a paperback copy.

The cast had a few props: nerf swords, hats or scarves or jackets to denote different characters, and several shiny crowns; its cheerful casualness it reminded me of high school English projects where students had to perform a scene from the semester’s play– except with many talented actors who can speak iambic pentameter with flow.

The time period this historical play is set in is convoluted and confusing. To understand much of the history requires lots of backstory and explanation of legitimate and illegitimate births and family trees. Game of Thrones is based, very loosely, on this period, called the War of the Roses, a time of civil war in England from around 1455-1485. The royal House of Plantagenet had rival factions within it, the House of York and the House of Lancaster, both of whom had claims on the throne. Both sides gained and lost the throne several times, resulting in five kings in 25 years, three of whom were killed by their rivals. The bloodshed and unrest ended when Henry Tudor (later Henry VII) defeated Richard III in battle and married Elizabeth of York, uniting the Lancaster and York families. In Winston Churchill’s History of the English-Speaking People; The Birth of Britain, he called this period “the most ferocious and implacable quarrel of which there is factual record… It was a conflict in which personal hatreds reached their maximum… The ups and downs of fortune were so numerous and startling, the family feuds so complicated… Only Shakespeare… has portrayed its savage yet heroic lineaments. He does not attempt to draw conclusions, and for dramatic purposes telescopes events and campaigns.” – The Birth of Britain 

Richard III follows the eponymous villain as he schemes his way to become king and then loses the throne and his life. He tricks his brother King Edward IV to imprison their other brother, Clarence, whom he then has murdered in the tower.  He manages to woo and marry Lady Anne, winning her over with smooth words despite the fact that she knows he killed her husband and father-in-law. After King Edward IV dies of sickness, Richard manages to send the children next in line to the throne to the Tower of London. The rest of the family is furious but powerless. He gets a lot of people executed or murdered (including the children and his wife) and wins the throne. He schemes to marry his niece, Elizabeth of York, but instead is defeated and killed in battle by the virtuous Richmond, who marries Elizabeth of York instead and becomes Henry VII, beginning the Tudor dynasty– the dynasty in power when Shakespeare wrote this play. Richard III is about a machiavellian man who manipulates others by lies, charm, threats, and murder. He’s fascinating and evil. You love to hate him. Denice Hicks’ abridgement of the play was clean and clear.

Cast and Audience at the Loading Dock

Such a tragic play with such scheming and treachery and murder is incongruous with nerf swords at a coffee shop, and the Nashville Shakespeare Festival took full advantage of that. Although many moments were played straight– “Now is the winter of our discontent,” “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse,” etc–  much of the drama was played with cheerful melodrama, and acidic asides were made goofily satisfying. The improvisational feel melded perfectly with this shift of mood; it had improv energy while people spoke pure poetry. It really worked. I laughed loudly at the comedy of two henchmen (the talented Matthew Benenson Cruz and Bob Roberts) as they murdered Clarence. At one moment, as Richard is explaining some of the family tree and his reasoning to marry Elizabeth of York to establish himself as a more legitimate heir, Caroline Conner (who played Buckingham) acted hilariously confused and muddled by his explanation.

Denice Hicks, the artistic director, announced the stage directions to the audience, giving the scene, location, and some of the character names, but she also played Queen Margaret in a few scenes. At one point, she introduced a scene, then flipped a shawl over her head and began speaking as her character. The actors on stage turned to look at her and she quickly told them, “You can’t see me, this is an aside.” They hastily turned away, but later in the scene Andrew Johnson turned to face another character as Hicks was speaking and she waved him away, “You can’t see me,” and he called back, “I’m not looking at you.”

Much of the cast was familiar, Nashville Shakespeare Festival regulars. All did a great job. Andrew Johnson (who played Benedick in last summer’s Much Ado About Nothing) was fantastic, funny, and full of range. Joyce Torres had a fun husky regal air when she played the Duchess of York, Katie Bruno was comic and cutting as Queen Elizabeth (not either of the Queen Elizabeths you’re thinking of) in her argument with Richard.  Bob Roberts played the drums, giving literal badum-tsch sound effects. A few times he delivered lines on stage and quickly turned to hit the hi-hat with a nerf sword. He and Matthew Benenson Cruz were expressive and probably the funniest part of the show to me, as Richard’s henchmen.

The final lines in the play, “Now civil wounds are stopped, peace lives again./That she may long live here, God say amen.” The cast gestured to the audience to say it along with them, and we did. To anyone that suggests the Nashville Shakespeare Festival perform another pop-upright play, I say amen.


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