If ever a Harvard actor has been too good in a role, then perhaps Stanley F. Pickett, the Richard of the Quincy House Dramatic Society's new production of Richard III, is that man. If that sounds like a curious sort of praise, or even vague damning, let me hasten to reassure you: Pickett's performance is quite a magnificent piece of acting, and he enriches the play by his very presence on stage. And yet that is also his problem. At his best, Pickett is as clever as the lines of his part--which is fine; at the same time, however, by a process I will try to unravel, he is much cleverer than the lines of the other parts of the play, which thus becomes less than interesting.
Richard III is early Shakespeare, and it is also very windy Shakespeare. More princes rant, more queens keen, and more nobles bemoan than in any play of comparable length (there are, to be sure, very few plays of comparable length). Richard himself is certainly villainous and unscrupulous, even though the only motive ever put forward for his villainy is simply that he enjoys himself no end by being consummately nasty. But he is better than villainous: he is memorable. And he is memorable because he refuses to take the rantings of his fellows seriously. Everything they say is humbug, he decides;--so everything he says will be humbug.
And it is, of course, precisely that. His dissembling is always taken seriously by everyone else, because Richard is a great actor as well as a polished Machiavell. But one should remember that, except when self-doubt begins to gnaw at his innards towards the end of the final act, nothing he says (as contrasted with what the others say) is ever meant to be taken seriously by a reader, or by an audience.
Which brings me back to Mr. Pickett. Pickett is, so convincing in his conviction that all the world is deceitful, conniving, and generally up to so good, that he is able to persuade a groundling like me--prepared, if not especially eager, to condemn him as his creator does--that, by Harry and St. George, he's quite right. Nearly everyone around him is shiftless and scheming; but this same nearly everyone around him is also far from being the actor he is--and, consequently, where he is diabolically entertaining, the others are often very tiresome in their rhetoric.
Samuel Abbott, the director, has had the sense to realize what Mr. Pickett has done to poor old Shakespeare, and he has ordered the rest of the cast to speak as quietly and as naturally as possible. This mutes their bombast well enough--and one can't in all conscience complain about that: there's entirely too much noise in almost every Shakespeare production--but it seems to be of little avail. With the exception of a few actors, like Mr. Abbott himself (who is the languid and ailing King Edward), or Andreas Teuber (a vital Buckingham, and a perfect Charlie to Pickett's Ev), or Phil Kerr (Harry Richmond), whose skills approach those of Mr. Pickett, none of Richard's enemies is much worth listening to.
And that is another point: one is forced to listen to them for a very long time. Mr. Abbott has cut 800 lines from the play--and it still runs close to three and a half hours. As long as Richard is on stage, one's attention is continuously riveted, but when he leaves....
The set, to turn to other matters, is at once simple and elegant. The audience sits on opposite sides of it; to their left and right are wooden balconies; and between the balconies is open space. This gives Richard, and everyone else, plenty of room to bustle in, and it must be said that Mr. Abbott takes full advantage of the opportunities thus afforded. There is no end to the bustlings, sweepings, groupings, and regroupings that his actors form on this bare stage. The eye is kept interested long after the ear has begun to tire. There are also costumes, handsome for the most part, and music, never worse than run of the mill.
It occurs to me, finally, that I perhaps haven't made it sufficiently clear that, in spite of the fidgets and the runs of the mill, Mr. Pickett is very much worth the seeing. If he is in any way too good for Shakespeare, he is certainly not too good for Harvard audiences. Indeed, his acting is a rare pleasure, and one to be treasured. We are lucky to have him around.