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Shakespeare’s ‘Richard III’ As A Hell on Wheels

by Jerome Weeks 11 Apr 2008 11:03 AM

Richard Crookback through the years:

  • John Barrymore’s film version from 1929’s Show of Shows. Richard III as Bela Lugosi or John Carradine, a creepy, horror-movie monster.
  • Laurence Olivier’s “Winter of our discontent” solioquy from his 1955 film version. Olivier reportedly modeled his performance on infamous theater producer Jed Harris.
  • Antony Sher’s Year of the King, his published diary and sketchbook recording his award-winning Royal Shakespeare Company performance in 1984. He developed his ruthless Richard-on-crutches after months of studying psychopaths and the disabled.
  • Ian McKellen’s opening from his high-style, 1995 film version. Richard III as Sir Oswald Mosley, the British fascist.
  • Jonathan Slinger’s acclaimed performance from last year’s RSC production. Richard III as Roy Cohn.


Actor Rene Moreno plays the king in the current Kitchen Dog Theater adaptation of Richard III – and brings an unusual “quality” to the part: He has been in a wheelchair since 1991 when a five-story fall cost him the use of his legs.

Ian Leson, who directed the production, knew he wanted Moreno to play the evil Richard. But he worried about offending the actor. Richard is a great role. But he’s also one of Shakespeare’s only deformed characters. He’s an infamous hunchback. In the play, he’s called a “lump of foul deformity.”

But, Moreno says –

Moreno: Unbeknownst to Ian, whenever anybody asked me whether there was a role I wanted to do, and especially after my accident, it was kind of a secret to myself that I would actually want to do Richard III. I think the wheelchair made perfect sense.

Since 1993, Moreno has been a rarity – a disabled performer who has succeeded in working onstage. In most cases, his wheelchair hasn’t mattered in his roles – other than the set needing a few ramps.

But in Richard III, the tyrant’s deformities are reviled as marks of evil. And Richard himself exults in them, boasting that if he’s too ugly to be a lover, he’ll be a villain.

The idea of turning these same deformities into physical disabilities began with Antony Sher’s celebrated 1984 Royal Shakespeare performance. Sher used crutches tied to his arms. In the play, Richard is called a bottled spider, and the crutches made him look like one. But they weren’t just a grotesque image. The key to Richard, Sher wrote, isn’t evil; it’s his pain, his bitterness over his condition.

Rene Moreno and Christie Vela

Moreno and Christie Vela in ‘Richard III.’ All photos: Matt Mrozek

At Kitchen Dog, director Leson agrees that deformities or handicaps hardly explain why anyone would murder his way to power.

Leson: It just didn’t connect for me. He wants to raise hell as a result of that? I just didn’t understand. He seemed bored. I’m bored therefore I’ll do this. And I think there’s a lot to Rene bringing to the table every day what he deals with as a man in a wheelchair and what that must do over time. And I think there’s a point where Richard says, enough is enough.

What Richard III — and Rene — deal with are condescension and barriers. In Leson’s adaptation, the other nobles are all squabbling, partying Eurotrash who disdain Richard. He may be smarter and harder-working, but he’s still ignored.

Rehearsing all this with his fellow actors has been painful, says Moreno

Moreno: One particular time I lost it and went off. I realized that I was trying very passionately to explain to them what sometimes my life is like moving in the world in the chair – and I realized that’s exactly what’s going on with Richard.

A hurt, resentful Richard isn’t necessarily sympathetic, Moreno believes. Just more human. In the end, this Richard III gives us a handicapped man as a cold-blooded killer; it also gives us a handicapped man who can do just about anything – seize the throne or, as in this scene, seduce the widow of a man he murdered.

Richard: Was ever woman in this humor wooed?

Was ever woman in this humor won?

What? I that kill’d her husband and his father,

To take her in her heart’s extremest hate

With curses in her mouth, tears in her eyes …

And yet to win her, all the world to nothing?