This is not one of my favorite plays. Part of that is my allegiance to the House of Lancaster. Henry IV and Henry V seemed like my kind of guys so I was sorry to see the House of York pry back the crown from their side in Henry VI Parts I, II & III. But more than that, it’s the spectacle of a monster like Richard crushing the people around him, his family in fact, without any compunction or even much difficulty. His brothers Edward and George are oblivious to his treachery even as it is being accomplished. His other enemies are more aware but equally powerless to save themselves from his malice. He moves from outrage to outrage upping the ante at each stage. Finally, he assigns a merciless assassin to smother his nine and twelve-year-old nephews with their own pillow to ensure that they never have the chance to revenge themselves on Richard for his usurpation of their father’s crown. And then there’s the matter of Lady Anne. She is the widow of the Lancaster heir to the throne, Henry VI’s son Edward. And it was Richard who killed Edward. Having Anne agree to wed Richard is the final outrage that just makes the play a bridge too far for me. I mean, come on! Richard is a hunchbacked, withered armed, monster. Anne spits in his face and calls him a fiend and then willingly marries him. This is a tough play to understand.
Anyway, Olivier plays Richard to the hilt. He is actually comical at certain points in his jocular, two-faced portrayal of the monster. Olivier has surrounded himself with an all-star cast of Shakespearean professionals. Cedric Hardwicke is his brother King Edward IV, John Gielgud is his brother George, Duke of Clarence, Ralph Richardson is Duke of Buckingham and Claire Bloom is Lady Anne. The acting is good. It’s just that I can’t stomach the plot. To see evil just dance along while well meaning people are led to the slaughter irks me. The ending should be consolation enough. Richard gets his comeuppance and pays the price. But the play rubs me the wrong way. It’s the way that good seems to be powerless to resist evil. It’s almost as if it gives up without a fight. Oh well.
So, as you can tell I don’t love this play but I recognize that it’s really about me and my way of looking at the world. I acknowledge that this is a well-acted version of the play and the production is full of nice touches. The chanting monks, the cinematography of the battle scene, the excellent set design, the skill of the cast. Olivier’s elocution and mastery of the part demands it be seen. He gives us a consummate and thoroughgoing villain. All of it recommends this play to the Shakespeare devotee. So, I do recommend this version. It is well done and deserves high praise.
But I’d rather watch Hamlet. I’d rather watch Henry V. Richard III rankles me no little bit.