A Pair of Kings: John Douglas Thompson

Photo by Kevin Sprague ©2010 www.kevinsprague.com

Last Sunday in Lenox, Massachusetts, audience members got their Bard on with ample sword-fighting and an autumnal chill in the late summer air at the final, sold-out performance of Shakespeare & Company’s Richard III.

The company, a classical boot camp in all things Shakespearean, dispatches dueling actors onto the patio pre-show to demonstrate their hard won skills before sipping patrons. The fruits of this training are, of course, are also evident everywhere on stage, with performance, set and costumes sprung from Shakespeare & Company’s intensive training and extended networks of artistic collaborators.

In this production, directed by S&Co. Artistic Director Tony Simotes, the lynchpin of both play and performance is the wretched king himself, a crown-jewel undertaking for the masterful John Douglas Thompson. The role also serves as perfect foil to the actor’s acclaimed titular role last year in Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones, revived for a sold-out run at the Irish Repertory Theater (and subsequently transferred to Soho Playhouse).

Those who made it to both shows got a king’s ransom in the devastating effects of political ambition and abject arrogance that is often the fire and the downfall of misguided dictators. However, while both characters set eyes on a similar prize, their methods and demeanors differed dramatically. No two kings are alike – particularly as interpreted by Thompson.

As Brutus Jones, Thompson unleashed the full effect of his physical power, raging and seizing the back of the house with the enormity of his presence. When Jones spirals into a hunted figure, his torture is equally pitched, as his kingdom was built on broadcasting greatness.

Richard is an altogether different stripe of megalomaniac. A chilling sociopath, he gleefully lets us in on his next misdeed, relishing the gullibility of each victim, and working every noblewoman like a Wall Street trader on the prowl. In each aside, Thompson creates a convivial intimacy with the audience that claims as massive an emotional space as the sheer, brutal force of his Emperor Jones.

If Thompson relied on his superior physicality alone – epic voice, imposing figure – we would all certainly gain much from the effort. That he can work these gifts so finely and reveal marauding traits, great and subtle alike, makes him truly worthy of the crown.

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