What To Know About 'Richard III' Before Going To Shakespeare On The Common

The stage on the Boston Common. (Courtesy Commonwealth Shakespeare Company)
The stage on the Boston Common. (Courtesy Commonwealth Shakespeare Company)

Commonwealth Shakespeare Company returns to the Boston Common from July 18 through Aug. 5 for its annual free Shakespeare on the Common presentation. This summer it’s a production of “Richard III,” one of Shakespeare’s “history plays,” and perhaps one of his bloodiest after “Titus Andronicus.”

You don’t have to know a whole lot about English history — or even have read the other “history plays” in the Shakespearean canon — to appreciate “Richard III,” which, in this production, features veteran Shakespearean actor, TV and film star Faran Tahir in the title role. Even so, it might help to know a little bit about the events the play addresses.

“Richard III” commences while the War of the Roses is in full swing. This was a period of civil strife between two factions struggling to take and keep hold of the English throne. One side was supported by the “Yorkists”; the other side was supported by the “Lancastrians.”

At the start of the play Richard’s brother, Edward IV — a Yorkist — is the king of England, having defeated King Henry VI in 1461. It’s now about 20 years after Edward’s ascension to the throne, and Richard is plotting to get himself installed as monarch, even though he is not in the direct line of succession. His ruthless strategies involve murdering a different fellow named Edward — the son and heir of Henry VI — and marrying his wife, Anne. In order to clear a path to the throne, Richard sets about killing his brother Clarence and adding to the stresses and strains already borne by Edward IV, who is in poor health. When the strategy pays off and Edward IV dies, it’s his son Edward V who is set to become king -- but Richard III contrives to get both the young Edward and his kid brother locked up, and then sends in killers to finish them off.

Unrest persists in the kingdom, and Richard’s heavy-handedness creates many enemies. Eventually, those enemies unite against him under the leadership of Henry Tudor. When Richard and Henry meet in battle the stage is set for a final victor to emerge and England’s long, bitter schism to be healed.

Those who know a little history might already know that the Tudors came out victorious; about a century later, Shakespeare — writing to please her majesty Elizabeth I, herself a descendant of the Tudor lineage — made Richard III out to be a terrifying villain, in keeping with the propaganda about him. Later historians argued that Richard wasn’t quite so monstrous, and it’s unclear whether he really did some of the terrible things that rumor — and the play — attribute to him, like murdering Edward V and his brother, who were both still children. Be that as it may, the Richard III of Shakespeare’s telling is a complex and nearly unstoppable creation, larger than life even if he is deficient in ordinary human virtues. Everyone thrills to a well-drawn villain — and besides, there are plenty of ready parallels begging to be drawn between Richard and the times he lived in, and the summer of 2018.

Not that it’s necessary to look at this production as social commentary or instructive slice of (somewhat exaggerated) history. Who needs an excuse to go enjoy an evening of Shakespeare’s poetic language and intensely dramatic characterizations? There’s a definite magic to CSC’s outdoor productions. The productions — all but one of CSC’s Shakespeare on the Common offerings have been directed by Steven Maler, who returns to direct once more this time around — are well-miked, well-lit and creatively staged, and there’s just no substitute for having the night sky as your theater’s roof.

These open-air performances are family-friendly. Picnics are a popular pre-show activity (though you’ll need to stick to soft drinks when consuming beverages on the Common). Bring a blanket or two, and kids can nap as the hour grows late. It's conveniently near Earl of Sandwich, which offers a selection of wraps, sandwiches and salads. Other food trucks service the occasion, as well, including Ben and Jerry’s ice cream! Performances begin at 8 p.m., except on Sundays, when they start at 7 p.m.; there’s also a Saturday matinee scheduled for 3 p.m. on Aug. 4. (Be sure to bring sunscreen if you go to that one.)

There are accessible shows on the schedule: the Audio Described Performance is slated for Saturday, Aug. 4 at 3 p.m. (if there’s rain, the fall back date is Sunday, Aug. 5), and the Open Captioned performance is set for Saturday, July 28 at 8 p.m. (with a rain date of Wednesday, Aug. 1).

No tickets are needed since the show is free — though donations are always appreciated, and if you prefer a lawn chair up close to a picnic blanket on a patch of grass on a first-come, first-served basis, you can pay $75 to be seated in the Friends Section.

Kilian Melloy Theater Critic
Kilian Melloy is a contributor to WBUR's The ARTery.



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