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review

Richard III is being produced first in the new Patterson primarily as a nod to the first play ever done at Stratford back in 1953.David Hou

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  • Title: Richard III
  • Written by: William Shakespeare
  • Director: Antoni Cimolino
  • Actors: Colm Feore, André Sills
  • Company: Stratford Festival
  • Venue: Tom Patterson Theatre
  • City: Stratford, Ont.
  • Year: Runs to Oct. 30, 2022
  • COVID-19 measures: Masks required until at least June 21; reduced-capacity performance available

It’s, at last, glorious summer for the Stratford Festival’s new Tom Patterson Theatre.

A Richard III starring Canadian stage icon Colm Feore opened in the $70-million complex’s 600-seat auditorium on Saturday night. It’s the first production to get a chance to properly showcase what the space can do besides look pretty on the Avon River, as it has, semi-shuttered, for the past two pandemic years.

That’s not to diminish in any way the great enjoyment to be found simply in approaching and entering this light-filled building, in exploring the pleasing curves of its elegant wraparound lobbies as you await curtain time.

But an audience member will only feel like a true explorer upon breaching the auditorium’s U-shaped seating area, which now involves going down instead of up; it’s like descending into the hull of a giant ship.

The space is sunken for acoustic reasons and the disappearance of all ambient noise is immediately noticeable, almost unnervingly so, as you stowaway for your theatrical journey ahead.

Richard III, which is directed by Stratford artistic director Antoni Cimolino, eagerly shows off all that is sonically possible in this intimate space.

Feore’s power-hungry hunchback whispers, softly whistles and wheezes out his famous first monologue – “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York” – and the hushed sibilance of all those esses is like a snake hissing right in your ear.

For the Battle of Bosworth Field that ends the play, on the other hand, Cimolino unleashes a flurry of flashbangs from above that will might make you cover your ears. This space can do startling surround-sound spectacle as well. (The inaugural sound design is by John Gzowski.)

The Patterson’s long thin stage – what Stratford calls an elongated thrust – looks very similar to the old one found in the shabby-chic building of the same name that once stood on this same site.

But Cimolino’s production quickly demonstrates its hidden secrets – like the traps that lead to spacious compartments below. These allow Feore’s Richard to emerge at the start of the show from an archeological dig site, designed by Francesca Callow to evoke the one in Leicester where the real king’s bones were unearthed under a parking lot a decade ago.

The old Patterson stage had different types of traps for directors and designers to fall into. There was always a production there each season where, seemingly in response to the catwalk stage’s limited opportunity for scenic design, designers instead went overboard on elaborate historically inspired costumes – and turned plays into fashion shows.

That’s much the case here with Callow’s lovely, smothering costumes; men are hidden under heavy cloaks, women swallowed up by billowing dresses. Too many actors are forced to perform entirely with voice and face – and some of those faces are even half-covered by long, straggly hair in the name of Middle Ages realism.

This leads some performances to feel disembodied, some scenes to feel like dull pageantry; indeed, the pre-intermission part of this Richard has enough longueurs to allow you to take in the new auditorium’s lighting plot as fully as you like.

Colm Feore as Richard III.David Hou

Ironically, playing the disabled Richard, Feore is the only performer allowed to completely bring his body into his performance. Plotting his bloody path to the throne of England, he capers with surprising nimbleness across the stage even though his feet and legs point at each from odd angles, and one arm slumps. Dressed in a trim black outfit, and historically accurate bowl cut, he shows he can act with every inch of himself – even his exposed eyebrows.

Feore’s Richard is, indeed, differently abled – the fact his body moves in unusual ways seemingly allows him to make power moves, too, that others around him don’t quite clock until it is too late. It’s a striking contrast to the rather heady performances the actor gave mostly recently in Stratford in Macbeth or King Lear; Feore’s in top form here.

For this production, Cimolino has treated Richard III as a true history play, eschewing abridgment in order to highlight how the Duke of Gloucester and his right-hand man Buckingham (André Sills) exploit already existing rifts among English royals in order to take over. In Richard’s rise to the throne, Cimolino sees “a template for tyranny.”

For anyone who’s not recently brushed up on their Henry VI Parts I through III, however – plays Stratford hasn’t touched in 20 years, not unreasonably – all these machinations involving hard to distinguish male characters with dreary names such as Grey can be opaque.

The females character are, as always, much more fascinating in their brief appearances: Jessica B. Hill’s defiant then demolished Lady Anne, Lucy Peacock’s prickly Queen Elizabeth, and Seana McKenna’s cursing Queen Margaret – so creepy, she’d no doubt appear in a mirror if you said her name thrice.

Still, to an audience simply coming in at the end of the War of the Roses, Margaret’s listing of the liquidated – “I had an Edward, till a Richard kill’d him; thou hadst a Edward, till a Richard kill’d him; thou hadst a Richard, till a Richard killed him,” etc. – comes across primarily as a nonsense verse about medieval England’s limited gene pool and lack of imagination in noble nomenclature.

It’s the murders planned and executed in front of us that are most engrossing – starting with that of Michael Blake’s soulful Clarence who nearly convinces his killers to back down, before his body gets dumped unceremoniously down one of those new traps.

The deaths of the young princes are as appalling as ever: Hilary McCormack makes a terrifying impression as the traumatized Tyrell who takes on that hit job while Cimolino, meanwhile, evinces a hitherto hidden Cronenbergian taste for cruelty in his staging of it.

Richard III is being produced first in the new Patterson primarily as a nod to the first play ever done at Stratford back in 1953 – but its delayed premiere means it arrives at a time when the play is widely in vogue again.

The Royal Shakespeare Company in the other Stratford is opening a production this month too, with a disabled actor playing Richard for the first time. Likewise, the Public Theater has chosen it for its 60th edition of Shakespeare in the Park in New York; Danai Gurira is in the title role there – and the Tony-winning actor Ali Stroker, who uses a wheelchair, is playing Lady Anne.

Expect a lively debate on disability and representation in Richard III to ensue – with Stratford’s production, though housed in a beautiful brand-new building, cast as the old-guard take.

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