Colette Hayes

February 11, 2002

English 431

Shakespeare, Loncraine, Donaldson, Richard, and Me:

A Train to be Reckoned With


Act 2.4 of Loncraine’s Richard III is where I started furiously scribbling notes in the margins of notes. After Rivers is shockingly murdered, Loncraine films a still shot of the countryside. A farmer leads an ox in the foreground, while a train noisily passes in the background. There is a quick cut to the train, smoke billowing from its engines, entering a dark tunnel and then another cut to a toy train in the palace. The young Yorks are playing with the toy train and also a gray airplane. Queen Elizabeth and her mother-in-law, the Duchess of York, chat nearby. Their discussion is light. The Duchess expresses her desire to see the Prince, as she has heard he has grown. Margaret plays the piano in the background and the whistle of the toy train continues. Lord Stanley and Richmond enter, harboring grave news. Suddenly there are a series of short cuts between the faces of the Duchess, the Queen, Stanley and Richard as the news is revealed. Rivers has been murdered. At this moment, there is silence. Then the toy train begins to make noise again. Elizabeth says "I see the ruin of my family" and then another cut to the boys playing with their toy train and airplane. In the shadow of the hallway, Richard’s accomplice, Tyrrell, derails the toy train with his foot, smirking at young York. The toy train noise smoothly becomes a real train whistle. And lastly, the scene is framed with the image of the real train, on which the Prince is a passenger.

After watching this is the scene of Loncraine’s film, I hit the pause button triumphantly. I positioned my text of Richard III and Donaldson’s essay "Cinema and the Kingdom of Death: Loncraine’s Richard III adjacent to each other and easily accessible. Then I carefully tried, in the spirit of Donaldson, to arrange the pieces: how is Loncraine visually representing the text of Shakespeare? What methods does he use to perform, interpret, and replace what Shakespeare wrote?

Loncraine’s use of sound was the first aspect of this scene I found significant. The soundtrack of the real train’s whistle is loud and invasive, even spilling into the next scene: the cut to a toy train in the palace. It is ambiguous as to where the sound of the real train stops and the toy train begins. In his opening soliloquy, Richard refers to himself as "subtle, false" (I.1.37), the exact words I would use to describe the sound techniques in this scene. Later, he says "thus I clothe my naked villainy/with odd old ends stol’n forth of holy writ/and seems a saint when most I play the devil" (I.3.336-7). Whether he is seducing Lady Anne or declaring a pseudo-peace with Queen Elizabeth, Richard is the archetype of deceit. His rhetoric is not unlike the train whistle in Loncraine’s scene: true and false are side by side and the transition between the two appears indistinguishable. As the Duchess says of her son: "Ah that deceit should steal such/gentle shape" (2.2.26-7). With the subtle medium of sound, Loncraine deceives, invoking a parallel type of deception that is central to the text of the play: Richard’s rhetoric.

Another technique worthy of mention in Loncraine’s scene is the short cuts he makes between characters as they discuss Rivers’ murder. The camera jumps from a bust shot of Queen Elizabeth to the Duchess, back to the Queen, to Stanley, then Richmond, to the Duchess and then to the Queen once more, producing imaginary intersecting lines with the camera. At first I felt this technique in keeping with the presence of trains in the scene, as if Loncraine wished to evoke railroad crossings with his camera movements. It also seemed as if Loncraine was visually drawing a web between the characters, reinforcing the web of horrors and deceit being carried out within the text. The affect was especially reminiscent of Queen Lady Margaret’s lines in Act 1.3: "Poor painted queen, vain flourish/of my fortune! Why strew'st thou sugar on that bottled spider,/ Whose deadly web ensnareth thee about?/ Fool, fool! thou whet'st a knife to kill thyself. The time will come when thou shalt wish for me/To help thee curse that poisonous bunchback'd/toad" (1.3.239-249).

Loncraine’s choice of content within this scene further represents, performs, and interprets Shakespeare’s text. The juxtaposition of the real train with the image of the York children and their toys is important. It effectively echoes Richard’s references to himself as a child immediately preceding this scene: "My oracle, my prophet, my dear cousin/I, as a child, will go by they direction" (2.3.152-3) and earlier when he claims "I would to God my heart were flint like Edward’s,/Or Edward’s soft and pitiful like mine./I am too childish-foolish for this world" (1.3.140-1). Just as the children are playing with toys, so Richard is playing with people, mere pawns in his quest for power. When Tyrrell derails the child’s toy train with his foot and smiles, Loncraine underscores this connection. On one hand, this gesture directly juxtaposes Richard’s violence to child’s play. It also designates he and Tyrrell as the "bullies" in this game. It is clear that the two never learned the rules of the sandbox or were never even welcomed there. Only now are they seeking their revenge.

Loncraine’s choice to make trains the focal point of this scene also alludes the 1930’s fascist Europe to which he has applied Shakespeare, or vice versa. Italian fascist leader Mussolini, as the cliché goes, "made the trains run on time" and it is well known that Hitler used trains essential to the war effort to transport Jews to concentration camps. It is even believed that Hitler, as enemy lines encroached, ordered that trains allotted to carrying Jews to their deaths be of first priority. In our scene, trains are a large part of Richard’s master plan. The young prince is on his way by train, and in disposing of Rivers, Richard has manipulated who will be there to greet him. Like the trains that led Jews to their deaths in concentration camps, the prince’s train leads him to his eventual death at the hands of Richard. Richard’s command post at the end of the film is also in a train — a German engine, originally belonging to Hitler. In so closely paralleling the two tyrannical leaders, Loncraine not only interprets the text of Shakespeare, but also adds another dimension to his play.

Lastly, Loncraine cuts much of Shakespeare’s text in this scene and actually replaces it with his emphasis on the train. Act 2.4 of Shakespeare’s text is largely centered on a discussion about growth: the Duchess wonders if the Prince has grown and the young York says: "‘ay,’ quoth my uncle Gloucester, ‘small herbs have grace, great weeks to grow apace’ and since methinks, I would not grow so fast because sweet flowers are slow and weeds make haste " (2.4.12-15). In the film, however, the dialogue is limited to one comment the Duke makes about Richard: "they say my uncle grew so fast that he could gnaw a crust at two hours old" (2.4.28-9). If we keep in mind that the train is a trope of technological advancement in terms of increased efficiency and mobility, perhaps we can trace a justification for Loncraine’s editing choices as well as see the connection between past, present, and future that Donaldson maintains is within the film. I recently read an online article entitled: "A Dialogue with the New York Times on the Technological Implications of the September 11 Disaster" in which Raymond Kurzweil explained:

The "peril" side of technology provides concentrated power to create suffering on unprecedented scales. We've already seen this in the twentieth century. Hitler's trains and Stalin's tanks were applications of technology. Technology empowers both our creative and destructive impulses.

Could it be that Loncraine’s emphasis on the train in Act 2.4 of Richard III is meant to signify technological growth and its double-edged sword? Is he highlighting, like Kurzweil, the destructive impulses technology might empower? Or better yet, has Loncraine replaced the dialogue concerning rapid growth that is present in the original text and replaced it with the train, an object symbolizing the quick growth of technology and its adverse effects? As Donaldson notes, Walter Benjamin argued that the masses want things brought "very near, very fast," but at the expense of a "withering aura" (3). "Uniqueness, distance, and numinousness," paraphrases Donaldson, are compromised as the "sense of violence, speed and devastation is more palpable" (3). I cannot help but apply this idea to Act 2.4, a scene riddled with images of the swift train paralleled with the destruction committed and continuing as Queen Elizabeth realizes the demise of her family: "Ay me! I see the ruin of my house./The tiger now hath seized the gentle hind;/ Insulting tyranny begins to jut/ upon the innocent and aweless throne./ Welcome destruction, blood, and massacre./I see, as in a map, the end of all" (2.4.49-54). Loncraine’s Act 2.4 replaces an extensive dialogue within the text with an image of the train, arousing a modern anxiety of doom: the destructive capabilities of rapidly growing technology are seizing an innocent and aweless existence.

Before reading Peter S. Donaldson’s article, "Cinema and the Kingdom of Death: Loncraine’s Richard III," I slept eight hours, ate a well-balanced breakfast, and ran a mile to warm up. I knew from reading "In Fair Verona," that Donaldson writes for fit athletes of an intense analytical and intellectual field. Focus, pacing, and especially composure are essential to navigating his intricate and challenging course of connections, allusions, Shakespeare, media, history, past, present, future and beyond. I was prepared, though, and began slowly, but confidently, on another one of Donaldson’s awesome paths. And this time, I just may have created some of my own.