A couple of years ago, when I was reading Richard III in preparation to write a proposal for directing it at Pigeon Creek Shakespeare, one thing I struggled with was how to help the audience understand the sequence of people standing between Richard and the throne. A lot of people have to die for him to have a shot at that shiny crown. Shakespeare writes with the assumption that his audience knows the history. He refers to people in passing without bothering to explain any of it, because his audience would have known about them.
I didn’t understand how Shakespeare’s history plays would have felt to his original audience until I heard the Hamilton soundtrack. Miranda is able to just drop somebody’s name in there–John Hancock, say–and if you grew up in the US, you have some general idea of who that is, you remember three facts about him, and you at least know which side of the war he was on. Doing Shakespeare’s English history plays now is like doing Hamilton, in 2419, in Malaysia. Think about how much won’t make sense.
As theater artists, we’re in the story business. Nobody is interested in what actually happened in the fifteenth century in England. Everybody is interested in the story of vaunting ambition and the people who are crushed underfoot as Richard scales a ladder of bodies to get to the throne.
So I’ve been noodling around the idea of having some kind of “check list” for Richard. It could be simple–one idea was to have a chalkboard on the stage with their names on it, and he would just cross them out as he eliminated them. Maybe it would have the family tree with his path to the throne in red. I rejected that idea because, while probably effective, it wasn’t beautiful. It also would be a serious pain to tour with a chalkboard big enough, and it would probably block one of our entrances.
Another idea I had was that we could have Margaret draw a symbol for each person on the floor (a boar for Richard, a white rose in a sun for Edward IV, etc) as she was cursing them in I.3. Maybe she’d even connect the lines to make a multi-pointed star, very witchy. Then Richard could rub them out with his foot as he arranged their deaths. This was a neat idea, but pretty flawed. For one thing, I didn’t know if our Margaret could draw freehand particularly well. For another, some of our spaces don’t have a floor that we could draw on. And the designs might get erased by our traffic patterns before the deaths actually happened.
One thing I love a little too much is big pieces of fabric on stage. I love how it moves and transforms, how it can be so many different things in the picture of the play. I love flags and banners. So I started to ponder whether I could take the idea about the symbols, and the idea about having something on the wall for Richard to cross off, and my love of fabric could come together to solve this problem.
Thus, the death banners were born.
I researched different symbols for each character. Some of them had a designated badge that was associated with them, like the boar for Richard. Others had their heraldric arms, which are a little more complex than what I was looking for, but still had specific shapes or ideas that I could extract. And in some cases, I picked something completely different, because it had some connection to history or character, or because their arms were just too boring to use.
Kate Bode, who is playing Margaret, helped me make the banners. I was originally going to do freezer paper stencil, but Kate has a Cricut machine that let us design on the computer and print onto iron-on vinyl.
We were very excited how these came out.
So, here are the banners.
From the left, we have:
- Buckingham: A crown, which is the top of his coat of arms.
- Edward V and Richard, Duke of York, the princes who get killed in the tower: A white rose for York
- Richard III: A boar
- George, Duke of Clarence: A wine goblet. He gets drowned in a butt of malmsey, so…
- Lord Grey: Here’s one that I think is very cool, but nobody else seems to be impressed. This character is actually a conflation of Lord Richard Grey, who is Queen Elizabeth Woodeville’s second son from her marriage before she was with King Edward IV, and Anthony Woodeville, Elizabeth’s brother. Anthony was famously an excellent scholar, with a great interest in poetry. One of the first books printed in England was his translation of the Dictes and Sayings of the Philosophers, printed in 1477. So it’s a book and I’m a nerd.
- Edward IV: The white rose in a sun
- Lord Hastings: A manticore. It’s on his arms and I don’t know why.
- Henry VII/Richmond/Henry Tudor: A Tudor rose
- Henry VI: A red rose for Lancaster
We also subsequently added a banner for Lady Anne (a heart with a crown above it).
Last night, we put up the curtain wall so everyone could get used to working with it, and hung most of the banners on the wall (some of them come on with characters, like the Henry VI one, which is draped on his corpse, and the Henry Tudor one that comes on right at the end). I told the actors to take them off the wall as they were making somebody’s death happen. So, for example, Ratcliffe pulls Grey’s banner off the wall and hands it to him as he’s about to lead him to Pomfret, where he’ll get axed.
I was a little nervous last night. I don’t usually get nervous for rehearsal after the first one, but I was just a big jangle going into last night. The first rehearsal when we have costumes, props, and curtains can be really hard on everyone. The addition of all this other stuff makes lines not settle into people’s bodies the way they usually are by this point in the process.
I also was, let’s be honest here, very nervous that the banners somehow wouldn’t work–that they’d be falling off the wall or that we’d be having a hard time figuring out how to take them down at the right moment, or people would think the banners were dumb.
These actors used the banners perfectly. Everything else was chaos, of course–this is expected on tech night. But the banner work was genius. When Katherine came on as Queen Elizabeth, mourning King Edward, she had his banner and held onto it as if she could bring him back to life if only she gripped it tight enough. Scott, as Richard, pulled the young princes’ banner off the wall and handed it to Tyrell when he doomed them, and Tyrell brought it back on with him when he described the sweet boys’ deaths and held it as gently as a baby. His work with his banner gave that scene an emotional dimension it hadn’t had before.
I love when I have been mulling over a problem and then the solution I finally come to solves other problems I didn’t really know I had. That Tyrell moment, for example–that scene needed something, but I would never have thought it needed six feet of red cloth.
The banners do act as a checklist for Richard. I don’t have him going in order or symmetrically–I wanted the banners to reflect how his actions unbalance the world, so the order is kind of random. But they do get taken down, one by one, until all that remains is the boar, which victorious Richmond snatches down.
There’s more to the banners than I’ve revealed here–but to learn about all that, you have to come to the show!