`Richard III' Moves to 20th Century

THE new stage production of "Richard III" by Britain's renowned Royal National Theatre, now touring the United States extensively, appears to have two main goals in mind.

One is to showcase the talents of Ian McKellen in the title role, and Mr. McKellen is certainly a talent worth showcasing. The other is to offer a new interpretation of Shakespeare's drama by moving its action to a different time and place.

Reading some press coverage of the production, you'd think updating a classic was a bold new idea. It's been commonplace for ages, of course, and the particular time-switch employed here - leaping from several hundred years ago to the fascist period of our own century - was brilliantly used by the New York Shakespeare Festival in its production of "Tis Pity She's a Whore," the Jacobean tragedy by John Ford, earlier this season.

Such updating can seem arbitrary and gimmicky if it isn't justified by every aspect of a production, from the play itself to small details of acting and visual style. The current "Richard III" easily passes the first part of this test, since Shakespeare's play is very much about the workings of a fascist mentality, and the havoc it causes in the politics of its time. Once you get used to the idea, it seems quite natural to see Richard as a sort of aristocratic Nazi bent on collecting and exercising raw p ower in the most ruthless ways imaginable - surrounded by upper-class elitists more eager to cower and collaborate than to confront or challenge the evil he represents.

What makes the production wear a bit thin, despite the undeniable forcefulness it often has, is the company's failure to couple its inventive conception of the drama with an equally groundbreaking approach to the performances.

Both key elements in the updating of the play - portraying Richard as a modern-style fascist, and other characters as British-inflected snobs and sympathizers - are conducive to a grandiloquent, speechifying style.

This meshes with the kind of declamatory acting long utilized by Shakespeareans of the most traditional kind. There's nothing wrong with this style, which has produced glorious moments in the theater. But it seems rather old-fashioned alongside the modernistic touches that director Richard Eyre continually injects into the show, from 20th-century costumes to impressionistic lighting effects and bursts of electronic music.

McKellen provides many of the production's most declamatory moments, which is natural, given his treatment of Richard as a rampaging demagogue. Declaiming, after all, is one of the things fascists do.

I tired of his relentless drive after a while, though, and I wished he would give certain scenes - when Buckingham vainly seeks a long-promised earldom, for example - an intimacy and complexity that his broad-stroke conception of the character doesn't allow.

Still, his sheer energy and unflagging momentum are impressive, and he makes up in vigor what he often lacks in subtlety. While my favorite Richards remain Kevin Kline's ironic tyrant, in a Central Park production a few years back, and Laurence Olivier's mannered monarch, in the 1956 movie he directed, I won't soon forget McKellen's bombastic autocrat.

Other strong performances include Terence Rigby as Buckingham, Antonia Pem- berton as Margaret, and Anastasia Hille as Lady Anne. Jean Kalman's lighting blends superbly with Bob Crowley's vivid set design. Dominic Muldowney composed the expressive music. "Richard III" finishes at the Brooklyn Academy of Music this Sunday . The 16-week tour includes: Washington's Kennedy Center (June 23-July 19), the Ordway Music Theatre in St. Paul, Minn. (July 21-Aug. 9), the Center for the Performing Arts in Denver (Aug. 11-16), the Curran Theatre in San Francisco (Aug. 19-Sept. 13), and Royce Hall at the University of California at Los Angeles (Sept. 15-27).

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