I knew, going into Richard, that I would have a huge personal connection with the women in this play. “It’s a play about motherhood,” I kept telling people who raised a skeptical eyebrow when they heard the title. I didn’t expect to be so moved by Richard’s sociopathy. I’m completely the opposite of a sociopath, much too open to other people’s emotions, where Richard is entirely closed off from them.

One of the people I’m closest to had a childhood brain injury. As a result of this, he has a number of traits that match the Hare checklist. He’s not a dangerous person at all, and I think that lots of sociopaths are not. The ones who do awful things give them all a bad name. In the case of this person, I would describe sociopathy manifesting as a kind of emotional colorblindness, and maybe also a transactional view of other people. He’s also caring, loving, supportive, and kind–but in different ways and for different reasons than most people. These are learned behaviors for him. It’s a lucky thing that he grew up in a family that worked to teach him how to move in a world of people whose feelings are much deeper and more intense than his.

It wasn’t until I was home and the show was opened (and so, my part of it finished) that this person asked me, “Do you think you understood Richard in a different way than you would if you didn’t know me so well?” I was momentarily embarrassed, because, although I had thought a few times of things Richard said that I could imagine this person saying, I hadn’t realized until he put it like that how powerful an influence my relationship with him had been on my work in this production. I was also embarrassed because even with someone who will readily self-identify as a sociopath, one doesn’t want to say to somebody one loves, “Oh yes, you have a lot in common with one of history’s most notorious villains.

He was right.

I thought about one night in rehearsal when Scott and I were talking about Richard’s compulsive lying. “Can you just play it completely straight, like everything you’re saying is true?” I asked. “Richard is clearly an excellent liar.”

It felt like every night, I asked Scott if he could mean it more. “Just don’t lie. Make it true.”

“Look how this ring encompasseth thy finger / Even so, thy breast encloseth my poor heart.”
Image by Seraphina Zorn

By the end of it, he said it felt like, “I’m just Scott Lange, wooing a girl. And then she leaves and I get to be Richard.” That is a good description of what I saw onstage. The lie so convincing it becomes true. I’ve seen my resident sociopath lie to people. It’s breathtaking how good he is at it. How utterly brazen. How convincing. He has no tell; no wink. I see it much less than I used to because my tolerance for that kind of thing is basically nil, and he’s decided that honesty is a fair price for my love. But I’ll never forget how it felt to see it in action. I asked him about this, during our conversation when I got back. “Oh, yeah, it’s just context shifting,” he said. “You don’t have to convince anyone but yourself. So you just…adjust to a context where it is true. Trump does it constantly.”

I realized, that’s what I was asking Scott to do. I’ve seen Richards with minimal winking before. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen one with no wink at all, as he’s playing. I love the sweetness and openness and intensity he employs when he’s wooing Lady Anne, and to have that just crumple into, “Was ever woman in this humor wooed” is chilling in all the right ways. He has another moment like this in the very first scene, where he is kind and attentive to his brother Clarence, and as he watches Clarence head off to the Tower, he takes every beat of “Go tread the path that thou shalt ne’er return. / Simple, plain Clarence, I do love thee so / That I will shortly send thy soul to heaven, / If heaven will take the present at our hands” to transform from a loving brother to a cold-hearted villain. It’s like watching a Polaroid develop, emerging from a smooth surface in wrenching detail.

His relationship with Lady Anne is another sociopath marker. She’s clearly empathic, loving deeply and with her whole heart. Empaths and sociopaths are drawn to each other–empaths are so overflowing with emotions, and sociopaths are just a black hole desiring to suck up any emotions they can get. My sociopath told me, “That’s one of the reasons I like to be with you–you are just pouring out all of these feelings all the time, and it’s like a drug for me.” We play this a little in the wooing scene–Richard goes into it planning to get Lady Anne to marry him for political reasons (and also because conquest is fun, and is there a bigger challenge for conquest than a woman whose husband and father-in-law you’ve murdered?). But there’s a point when it becomes fun and fascinating for him, and I think it’s when he gets a hint of the grief and anger Anne projects all over the place. Her banner symbol is a crowned heart for a reason.

Another hallmark of sociopaths is a particular flavor of impulsivity. Scott asked me one night if I thought that Richard and Buckingham come into the scene with the young princes already having formulated the plan of getting them into the Tower. It was a good question, and one I hadn’t really considered. “I think they come in with the objective of gaining control of the Princes, but whether that’s going to be through flattery or coercion, I think they don’t have that decided. Try a lot of different tactics, and when Prince Edward asks where he should sleep, let yourself discover that idea in the moment.” I always tell actors that discoveries and decisions are the only interesting things they can do onstage. Everything else is just how you get from one discovery or decision to the next. And Richard makes so many decisions in the moment. It’s one of the things that makes him terrifying. Nobody ever is quite sure that he won’t turn on them and order their beheading.

“Have done thy charm, thou hateful, withered hag!”
Image by Seraphina Zorn

Richard becomes more impulsive as the play escalates. He’s doing fine until right around the point when he becomes king, and then his paranoia (another hallmark of psychopaths, incidentally) overwhelms him. Sociopaths, at a certain point, want someone to stop them. They do bigger and crazier things as a cry for help. Their plots go better than they could have dreamed, and everything spins out of control. They need somebody to apply the brakes, because they just don’t have them in themselves.

A few hours before Richard III opened at the Dog Story, I texted Scott what I meant to be encouragement: “Break a leg tonight. Be terrible. Be terribly human. I know it’s going to be awesome.”

He wrote back: “I was planning on being a terrible sociopath!”

To me, one of the deeply upsetting things about Richard is that he’s human. The most wrenching moment of the entire play, for me, is when he’s been visited by the ghosts. He wakes up swaddled in their banners, and he’s suddenly alone, confronted by the wrong he has done.

What do I fear? Myself? There’s none else by.
Richard loves Richard, that is, I am I.
Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am.
Then fly! What, from myself? Great reason why:
Lest I revenge. What, myself upon myself?

He talks himself in circles, facing his own crimes for the first time. It’s like he’s awakened from a dream–not just the dream of the ghosts’ visitation, but also the dreamlike mania for power, the intensity of his ambition that muffled all other senses.

“I shall despair. There is no creature loves me; / And if I die, no soul shall pity me.”
Image by Seraphina Zorn

I asked Scott to pick a moment in the monologue to see whose banner he has clutched in his hand as he’s risen from the ground. “Take just a breath and think about that individual human person, not the scope of all your crimes. Just that one life,” I told him. The first time I saw him do it, the banner was the young princes’, then Lady Anne’s the next time. The moment he chose to examine the banner is right around “I shall despair. There is no creature loves me, / And if I die no soul will pity me.” Each time he said that line, looking at the symbol of another person, it carried the weight of that specific person’s life and energy. I can’t fathom how Scott is able to do this thing I asked him to attempt, but he does it exactly. It may be the loneliest line in the entire play. Richard, like all who are incapable of truly loving, dies alone. And now, much too late, he knows it.

When I showed the image from right after the dream to Holly, she said, “He looks like a child, there. Like a scared child.” I told my resident sociopath this, and he said, “Yes, it’s just like that, when emotions show up.” I remember when he got on some brain meds that let him have a richer emotional life than he had ever had before, at first, all feelings were too much for him. Once, he nearly threw up because he could feel the outpouring of communal joy when a friend announced her pregnancy at a crowded dinner table. Another time, he said, “I feel tight in my chest and like my head is hot, what’s going on?” and I told him, “You’re angry. That’s what angry feels like.” Those emotions made him like a child because, unlike the rest of us, he had not learned to process those emotions as a preschooler. It’s not that sociopaths don’t have any emotions. It’s that their experience of emotions is so limited that they process them like children.

Scott’s acting in this moment is so clear and honest, it takes my breath away. He takes so many risks as Richard, but this moment–when he has to be terribly human–this is the biggest one.

For me, that’s where the real tragedy is. It’s a play about humans. Even the terrible sociopath is, at his core, a human person. A person destroyed.

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