Revisiting ‘Richard III’ at Aspen’s Shakespeare in the Park

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Stewart Oksenhorn/The Aspen TimesKathy Pelowski, as Lady Anne, and David Ledingham, as Richard III, rehearse a scene Tuesday night for the Hudson Reed Ensemble's production of Shakespeare's "Richard III." The historical tragedy opens Wednesday on Galena Plaza in Aspen, next to the Pitkin County Library, with additional dates through Aug. 29. Admission is free.

ASPEN – The historical Richard III, who reigned over England for two years in the late 15th century, was not quite the unrepentant murderer made out in Shakespeare’s “Richard III.”

True, Richard probably did have members of his own family killed to clear his way to the throne, but Shakespeare had other reasons to make Richard look as bad as possible. Richard had been a member of the Yorks, the family that battled the Lancasters for decades in a sort of civil war over control of the English throne. That battle was still simmering late in the 16th century, but as the Lancasters had the upper hand, it was politically expedient for Shakespeare to portray Richard as nothing more than a criminal.

“In Shakespeare’s view, and the view of the king in his time, Richard III was a villain, and a usurper of the throne,” said Kent Reed, artistic director of the local Hudson Reed Ensemble. “To have him vilified, that sat well with the powers on the throne in Shakespeare’s time. It legitimized their family winning the war.”

When Reed directs his ensemble in “Richard III,” a free production that opens Wednesday on the Galena Plaza, it will be a slightly less one-sided Richard that is presented. As fleshed out in famous portrayals by Laurence Olivier, Ian McKellen and Al Pacino, Richard III took on the persona, as Reed calls it, of “the quintessential Shakespearean villain.” As played by local actor David Ledingham, however, Reed hopes to peek under the skin of the murderer.

“My particular slant is, hopefully, to give some intimation of why Richard acts the way he does. As a human being, what’s behind the villainy?” Reed said. “He is deformed physically, as Shakespeare has it, a hunchback with a withered arm. In my view, that’s the physical manifestation of the psychological damage done him throughout his life. And that’s not the way Olivier or McKellen had it.”

Reed acknowledges that, in humanizing Richard, Shakespeare has not given him much to work with. “It’s a small window to indicate Richard’s internal pain,” Reed said, while pointing to two specific passages – in particular the opening monologue – that reveal some self-awareness on the monarch’s part.

But much of what makes Richard such a fascinating character – Reed puts him in the top tier of Shakespeare’s figures, with Hamlet and Macbeth – is the possessed manner in which he makes his way to the top.

“Watching him operate in his incessant climb to the throne, where he has to step over the carcasses of his brother – which he does – and two of his nephews – which he does – it makes him a funny character,” Reed said.

Reed considers himself fortunate to have Ledingham as his partner in creating this particular take on Richard. Ledingham, who was raised in Aspen, has a long list of experiences in theater and television, and Reed wouldn’t care to step into “Richard III” without the right Richard.

“It’s a tour de force for an actor,” said Reed, who had Ledingham’s assistance in adapting the play into a 75-minute version. “Like Hamlet, Macbeth, these are roles writ large for an actor. Having David was the linchpin to this particular production. It takes a lot of skill.”

As much as this version might humanize Richard, Reed has no doubt that this summer’s Shakespeare in the Park will offer a vivid contrast to the productions presented in the last two years: “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Much Ado About Nothing,” both comedies.

“Shakespeare doesn’t like the guy,” Reed said. “He doesn’t give you much reason to like the guy. So it’s a very small window to see why he is the way he is.”