There is something so joyful and special, generally speaking, going to Central Park on a beautiful summer’s night to see some Shakespeare performed under the stars and against one of the most beautiful backdrops around, the Belvedere Castle. There is also something else in the mix alongside that joy and splendor that is quite beyond the control of The Public Theater which is in charge of the Delacorte Theater. And that is the noise and rattle of the city that never sleeps; New York City, humming and sometimes distracting our attention from the serious business of Shakespeare and his tragic Richard III. Typically it is the odd plane or helicopter flying by, or the very NYC sound of a siren disturbing the night air peace as it flies down a nearby road. But on this particular night in Central Park, the distraction was something quite out of the norm; a pack of wild partiers had found their way into the auditory backdrop of the staging, drawing our attention slightly away from the Shakespearian dream and historic tragedy that was being acted out on that magnificent stage. At first, I think I believed it to be purposeful sounds of a party going on in the rear, a sound effect layering to the scene where Richard III lays out all of the diabolical and murderous plots. An interesting idea, I thought, but soon I realized, once the noisy mob started to group sing pop songs in loud drunken voices, that this was rebellious NYC pulling our attention away from the drama, not a sound effect or a natural disturbance. Not such a great thing. And it did have its way on us the night I saw Richard III.
That being said, it was work to stay focused, and it didn’t help that director Robert O’Hara (Broadway’s Slave Play) somehow missed the mark with his Richard III. His lead, the majestic and powerful Danai Gurira (Broadway’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone), who plays the titular character, Richard, donned a guise with a force to be reconned with; wise and devious, while also being completely captivating and intoxicating. Gurira and O’Hara cast aside the obvious physical deformities of the lead as written, clothing Richard’s naked villainy so well and beautifully that the reasons for the murderous momentum fail to find its undercurrent and its sharp edges beyond just simple power grabs and greed. She’s a charming beautiful monster. True, that might be the worst kind, but it is within the hunchback angle that will result in our corruption and investigation. Richard needs that complex complication to make the character hate the world, but in Gurira’s strong-minded approach, the anger feels mostly abstract and somehow unwarranted. It keeps us at a distance from her motive and the pain of Richard, oversimplifying the crime and causing our interest to fade or to be too easily distracted. And that is one thing that we didn’t need: another distraction.