I am an actress. I have a degree from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. I’ve been trained in Shakespeare. Yet, I have a shameful confession to make: I am intimidated by “The Bard”. He makes me feel stupid. I avoid working with him unless absolutely necessary and, because I’m a drama teacher, I can’t admit it to anyone. You can imagine my surprise and relief to hear many talented and renowned actors admitting, in front of a camera no less, that they didn’t get him either. A window opened in my mind, my attention ignited, and I joined Pacino on his quest as he went Looking for Richard.
That is precisely the goal of this film: To break down the barriers of intimidation and allow the audience to experience the timeless pertinence of the story and characters of King Richard III in an imaginative way. From the opening credits, which fade from “King Richard” into “Looking for Richard”, we are encouraged to “see and see again”. The possibilities of interpretation are explored until a specific choice is made and the final interpretation of the scene is performed using full production values. As the camera captures the energized conversations of the actors we are immediately part of the process, no longer detached or disinterested. We are willing and enthusiastic participants, wanting to know more.
Richard opens to various medieval images moving across the screen. Layered over the images are the sounds of a church bell tolling and a haunting interpretation of “Our Revels Now are Ended” from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, a story about a father and daughter stranded on a magical island. Juxtaposed against the historical images and words is the contemporary setting of a New York City neighborhood. It is no co-incidence that King Richard from the House of York. The camera pans down the high rise city building to a basketball court and a young man shooting hoops, oblivious to Al Pacino who watches, looking for a way into the game. In traditional Shakespearean style, Pacino breaks the fourth wall in a wordless aside, looking straight into the camera as if to ask, “How do I connect to this young man?” The answer comes in a fast cut to the actor’s animated discussion as they plan their course of action.
Wisely the group chooses to begin their quest on the streets talking with the common man. “I’ve been reading Richard III and I can’t get on with it” one person shares. Pacino asks another “Is there anything you can think of that makes you feel that it’s not close to you or connected to you?” The reply is honest and familiar: “Yeah, it’s boring.” More surprising was the unexpected wisdom and insight that came from ordinary people. One obviously homeless man said, “We should speak like Shakespeare… because then the kids would have feelings… If we had feeling in our words we’d say less and mean more”. When Pacino probed further with, “And you think Shakespeare helps us?” he responded, “He did more then help us; he instructed us….” We are stunned. We all long for more connection and “feeling”. Is it really possible that Shakespeare had some insight? Hearing such insight from a person of the streets makes it seem more possible that we, too, could understand Shakespeare.
Next the film moves on renowned Shakespearean actors and scholars. Kenneth Branagh admits, “At first we read it … aloud and of course there… was no connection.” Who couldn’t relate to that? To explain how an actor finds the meaning in the scene another actor offers, “What is left out is all the words that help … make the transitions. So we must buy it in the actions of the character.” Find the subtext by living the moments between the words, just like in real life; we make more connections. Vanessa Redgrave observes of the medieval time period, “Word has been totally devoid of truth, and that is a problem for the actor.” That is a problem for the common man as well. “If you get obsessed with the text … that is a great barrier to American actors… that isn’t what matters.” Good to know because the text is still daunting.
What does matter? Richard believes it is power and control and he doesn’t have it. “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York …” (Act I: 1). On first reading Pacino delivers it as we might read it, flatly and without understanding. A series of conversations take place exploring the feelings behind the text. “The key word is discontent… Richard tells us how he feels about the history”. The civil war is over, so what do they do now? They explore Richard’s physical appearance and the significance that has one his life: “Shakespeare has exaggerated his deformity to embody the corruption of his mind.” They talk about his relationship to the king: “The first act is about a King and everyone is maneuvering around the King.” Finally, they speak of the most personal aspects of Richard’s reality: “Love making and being with women is where you put your male energies… but Richard has a little problem here.” Interspersed with the discussions are scenes of the group going to a medieval looking building and beginning to don the costume of the period. As the understanding of the text becomes clear, Pacino’s Richard takes form and the finished monologue is filmed, this time with full understanding of the intentions behind the words and in full costume. Surprisingly we understand the finished scene completely. Empowered we move on.
This is the process throughout the film and because it is so time consuming, much of the text is left out. Since this is Pacino’s quest to find the character of Richard, the scenes are chosen accordingly. Surprisingly this omits many of the scenes which include the women. The wonderful swordplay of words Shakespeare is so famous for is very present in the text of Richard III. The woman are strong, intelligent and witty in the funeral bier scene with Richard and Anne in I:ii, the confrontation scene with Queen Elizabeth and Richard in IV:iv, and in the showdown scene with Anne, Queen Elizabeth, Margaret and the Duchess, also in IV:iv. But most of this is never dealt with by Pacino. Is he intimidated by female power?
In an exchange with the actress Penelope Allen (Queen Elizabeth) Pacino listens as she argues for her understanding of the strength of Queen Elizabeth. Allen insists that Elizabeth only appears to be hysterical, when in fact she is the only one who has an understanding of exactly how dangerous Richard truly is. She insists that the other characters actions should not be diminished or the characters made to seem weak as that would diminish her character’s strength. The scene is shown and the strength of the character adds a dangerous dimension to the plot development. Her passion paid off and I applaud her for standing up for us. Pacino seems less interested in dealing with feminine strength. The only woman’s scene he chooses to fully explore is the Anne/Richard scene from II:1.
Taking out most of the clever and biting exchanges in the script, he casts a beautiful and childlike Winona Ryder who embodies youthful naivety. This changes the whole dynamic of the scene, as now you have a powerless waif of a woman in an already compromising circumstance, making it extremely unlikely that she could ever stand up to the dominating presence of Al Pacino. Even in the filming of the discussion, Winona sits passively by as the discussion about her character swirls around her. This made some of the stronger exchanges between the Anne and Richard impossible, so the cuts to the script and the development of the characters reflect that. This is especially apparent at the end of the scene where Anne’s impudent lines “’tis more then you deserve; But since you teach me how to flatter you, imagine I have said “farewell” already” (I:ii:27-29) are reduced to a submissive, flirting plea of, “Teach me how to flatter you”. Where Shakespeare views women as strong forces to be reckoned with, Pacino sees them as powerless toys to be used and tossed aside. This leads to one of the most enjoyable interpretations of “I will have her (a horrific laugh) but I will not keep her long” (I:ii:234) causing our skin to crawl and stomachs to turn. Great for the character of Richard; not so great for the character of Anne.
One of the most daunting challenges to the American actor is the idea that Shakespeare’s words are sacred and need to be learned word perfect with absolutely no changes. Pacino takes this limitation off of the actors and allow ad libs and subtle line changes if they support the character development. This is shown in the scene with Hastings in III:iv:80 where he has been sentenced to death and he pleads to his friend Stanley not to abandon him saying, “Stanley, Stanley!” Those words are not in the text. It is also shown in the scene with Buckingham in IV:ii:119 when Buckingham changes the line from “Why then, resolve me whether you will or no” to an insistent and resentful “May it please your grace to resolve me in my suit”. Was this was the result of a line not quite gelled and the actor reaching for words to fill the intention? Or what it Pacino’s intentional choice? It doesn’t matter to us as the moment is effective and strong.
At some point it becomes clear that Pacino knows the character of the Richard; he is walking in his shoes and the two personalities meld. Any further dallying in the exploration process is bordering on self indulgency and Pacino seems to sense that. “Learn the rules like a master so you can break them like an artist” (anonymous). His research is done and it’s time to break some rules. This is symbolized by the cocktail party that the group attends. At the beginning of the process the “passionate” exchanges may have seemed energizing, but at this point they are only pretentious and silly; words without action. Pacino reacts instinctively saying, “Get me out of here” and so we leave. This begins the transition in the film as the group figures out a way to put Richard to bed figuratively and literally; to kill Richard (from the script) and finish the film (in real life).
Eager to finish the project, the filmmakers begin condensing the plot. The dream sequence in V:iii which on the page seems tedious and overblown, is a visual masterpiece of horrific images in an effective audio/visual nightmare. Only snippets of the lines remain with flashes of Richard’s victims being killed overlapping. We are at once inside the paranoid and desperate mind of Richard III. We are ready for him to die.
“I have a feeling your Richard will have earned his death and you really ought to begin to think about some way to do it”, Frederick prods him. But Pacino will not relinquish the quest. He is mad with the character now, insisting on a trip to England to stand on a stage where the actual scenes had once been played, fully into his method acting shenanigans. His troupe is tired of the antics, just as Richard’s men are tiring of his bloody rule.
The end comes at last. Fully immersed in the character and symbolically acting out Richard’s pathetic inability to relinquish power, Pacino is filmed “dying” on the steps of a church in Frederick’s arms, unable to let go of the character. “Richard is dead,” Pacino announces. Richmond thrusts the final sword into the still defiant Richard. Like a stuck boar, he takes his last breath and it’s over. Richard is finally dead. We can’t believe it. The group can’t believe Pacino’s finally going to close the film. Cut to his producers: “Is that it?” “I hope so.” “You know if I told him about the other ten roles of film he’d want to use it.” In true actor’s fashion the exploration will never be complete.
“I love the silence… what is that line?” Pacino asks a patient Gielgud. “The rest is silence,” he replies. Pacino is still searching. “Who said that? … whoever it was I know Shakespeare said it.” Gielgud smiles; he knows it was Hamlet and he knows it doesn’t matter. The quest is what matters. Cut to Shakespeare, head in hand, shaking it in disbelief. I am reminded of a famous Laurence Olivier quote that he offered to Dustin Hoffman, who had announced that he’d gone 3 days without sleep in order to ‘become’ his character” on the set of ‘Marathon Man’: “My dear boy, why don’t you try acting? It so much easier.” We each have a process and we must be true to it. See and see again?
Richard has come full circle. We end where we began, in the mystical space between the past and the present, where all things meld and our stories are timeless. But we are richer in knowledge and better for the lessons learned through Richard III. “Our revels now are ended. These our actors, As I foretold you, were all spirits and Are melted into air, into thin air…We are such stuff As dreams are made on, and our little life Is rounded with a sleep.” We don’t understand every word… but we understand. And that’s what matters.
Laurence Olivier, Sir quotes, Thinkexist.com, http://thinkexist.com/quotes/laurence_olivier,_sir/2.html
Looking for Richard (Al Pacino, director: Twentieth Century Fox, 1996).
William Shakespeare. Richard III. New York: New Folger Shakespeare Series, 1996. ISBN: 0671722840
William Shakespeare. The Tempest. Riverside Shakespeare 2nd edition, (1997)