(directed by Al Pacino, 1996)
This documentary has been on my wishlist for some years, but I only bought it a couple of weeks ago. Little did I know at the time that Richard III was about to become national news. As we all know by now, the University of Leicester announced on Tuesday that the bones found in September beneath a car park, on the site of the city’s medieval Grey Friars church, were almost certainly those of Richard, buried hastily and irreverently after the Battle of Bosworth.
The shattered back of his skull was testament to the halberd blow that killed him and the puncture wound to his pelvis evidence of the humiliation of his corpse after death. Most excitingly for this particular history-lover, the striking and sinuous scoliosis of his spine suggests that Shakespeare can no longer be accused of inventing English literature’s most famous crooked back. Of course, the day was barely out before articles started appearing which questioned the thoroughness of the research and grumbled that the press coverage simply reinforced the traditional ‘great men’ approach to history. And so what if it does? It’s got the general public talking about history and Shakespeare.
The Guardian has already interviewed some recent stage Richard IIIs to see if the discovery will change how they play the role (they say no: Shakespeare’s Richard is a fictional character and they play the part, not the historical figure). Most intriguingly, however, Richard’s skull has been used as the basis of a facial reconstruction: for the first time in over five hundred years we can get an idea of what our most notorious king might actually have looked like. Looking for Richard has suddenly taken on a whole new meaning.
Al Pacino is on a mission: to make Shakespeare more accessible and engaging for his fellow Americans. His documentary explores the conception, rehearsal and filmed performance of a production of Richard III which is, apparently, Shakespeare’s most frequently-staged play. I have to admit that surprised me: my money would have been on something like A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He goes out onto the streets of New York to chat with ordinary people about what Shakespeare means to them. Generally the answer is, not much. Fired up, Pacino gathers a team of actors to explore the play, each teasing out the motivations of their characters and discussing the turning points of the play as they progress. Rehearsal clips filmed around a table are interlaced with snippets of a costumed performance, and at each stage of the play Pacino and his colleague Frederic Kimball go out to find appropriate sets that will conjure up the feel of medieval England.
The Cloisters in New York play a significant role and there’s one rather wonderful moment when Pacino is in London at the site of the partially-built Globe: a pertinent reminder that, although this lovely theatre seems to have been there forever, it’s a very new addition to the London skyline. At crucial moments Pacino stops to ask why Richard is doing what he’s doing: why does he decide to woo Lady Anne? Does Queen Elizabeth know how dangerous Richard really is? Why does Hastings have to go? One of the documentary’s strengths is that it shows a passionate group of people engaging with the text, doing their best to bring it to life: a couple of rehearsal clips show them improvising scenes, speaking their lines in modern English, exploring the meanings that can then be channelled back into the original play.
Now, I’m not sure whether Pacino’s target audience – the people who feel Shakespeare isn’t for them – are really going to find their attitudes transformed by this documentary. But, for those of us who know Richard III a little, it is actually very helpful to be taken by the hand and walked carefully through the various developments. We don’t see the entire play performed on screen, which is a shame: the cast Pacino has assembled is a bit of a dream team, including a young Kevin Spacey as Buckingham and Winona Ryder as Lady Anne. I still don’t find Anne’s change of heart, from Edward to Richard, entirely convincing; but I did like Ryder’s youth and softness and uncertainty, which made a pleasant change from the shriller, less nuanced performances I’ve seen on stage. I was also struck by Penelope Allen’s performance of Queen Elizabeth: forceful, raw and fiercely suspicious. As Richard himself, Pacino was very impressive: a quiet, calculating figure who lurked in half-shadows and plotted his course from underneath his brows. I wish they’d filmed the entire play and included it in a box set with the documentary, so that you could come to it afterwards and appreciate the actors’ approach to the material.
There were moments when I felt that opportunities were missed. Pacino complements his team’s discussions with interviews, taking in academics and seasoned Shakespeareans, among them Kenneth Branagh, Sir Derek Jacobi, Vanessa Redgrave and Sir John Gielgud. These interviews could have been a valuable way to explore other perspectives on the play or alternative approaches to the role of Richard. Instead, I felt that these knowledgeable people were too often reduced to irrelevant snippets. Branagh and Jacobi, for example, only had a minute or so each, talking not about Richard but about why the British feel more comfortable with Shakespeare than the Americans do. It would have been such a wonderful excuse to draw on their experience and to make the documentary even more rich and interesting, and it seemed to be that the chance was wasted. And perhaps there was a bit too much wandering around the streets vox-popping and not quite enough actually focusing on peeling back the layers of the play.
But it seems churlish to quibble about these things when the programme as a whole attempts to delve into Shakespeare in a way I haven’t seen before. Since I’ve only seen Richard III on stage and never studied it, this was also a chance for me to take the play bit by bit, and better understand how the various factions are aligned and why certain decisions are made. I wish Pacino would do a bit more Shakespeare: I very much enjoyed his Shylock in The Merchant of Venice and, having seen him in this too, I think he copes very naturally with the text, as well as being able to draw out your sympathies even in a role as villainous as Richard.
This is probably something I’d recommend for those who, like me, enjoy Shakespeare plays on stage now and then, and are keen to find out a bit more about how they are performed and interpreted. There aren’t any dazzling insights, but it quietly untangles some of the more complicated moments in the play and it’ll mean that I can appreciate it even more next time I see it. The programme’s informality might grate on those who have a more serious and academic interest in the play, because of course they’re not the intended audience, but I think it’s wonderful that Pacino had the impetus (and the funding) to make something like this in the first place. If this is the sort of thing you enjoy, then you might also consider looking up Year of the King by Antony Sher, which is his diary of the year spent researching and playing Richard on stage.