Looking for Richard in the tambakan

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By Menchu Aquino Sarmiento

Theater Review
RD3RD: Throne of Blood
Presented by Tanghalang Ateneo
Directed by Anton Juan and Ricky Abad
On view until Jan. 28
Black Box Theater, Ateneo Communications Bldg.,
Ateneo de Manila, Katipunan Ave., Quezon City

Tanghalang Ateneo’s production of Shakespeare’s Richard III gives it a distinctively contemporary Pinoy makeover as RD3RD.

First, it’s pungently bilingual and liberally peppered with P.I.’s, although much of the Bard of Stratford-Upon-Avon’s elegant English is still there — just not in the order you expect. Thus, the line “Conscience is but a word that cowards use, devised at first to keep the strong in awe,” is delivered by a hired killer (Ron Capinding) as “Ang konsyensya, gagawin kang bakla.”

There is rhyme and reason to such creative license, thoughtfully taken by the dramaturge and Shakespearean scholar Judy Ick who also plays Queen Margaret. RD3RD has a very important message for Filipinos today which must be delivered in words and images we can more readily comprehend.

Ms. Ick’s husband Teroy Guzman is in the title role.

Anton Juan’s co-director and the Narrator Ricky Abad (he also plays the Duchess of York) explains that RD3RD was largely inspired by Stephen Greenblatt’s essay “Shakespeare Explains the 2016 Election” (The New York Times, Oct. 8, 2016). Greenblatt was talking about Donald Trump, and RD3RD alludes to you-know-who. In Shakespeare’s day, Richard III was his response to the problem of how a great country ended up being governed by a sociopath. It was among his most popular plays.

According to Greenblatt, as Shakespeare wrote it, Richard’s victorious ascent “depended on a fatal conjunction of diverse but equally self-destructive responses from those around him. The play locates these responses in particular characters… but it also manages to suggest that these characters sketch a whole country’s collective failure. Taken together, they itemize a nation of enablers.”

Those who do not learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it. Throughout the play, the Narrator uses the elements of Greenblatt’s essay to show the audience how such things have come to pass. Just as the Duke of Gloucester or Richard III’s rise to power was awash with blood, the allegorical RD3RD opens with an EJK. One might argue that Richard III killed off other nobles, mostly his relatives and rivals to England’s throne, while what we have here is the systematic serial slaughter of the lowly, nameless, often unproven drug abusers, petty criminals, with human collateral damage aplenty. The ghostly visitors in RD3RD strew the tsinelas (slippers), several for tiny feet, of those whose deaths are still under investigation or DUI. Actual news video clips are periodically projected, most poignantly of an anguished mother asking the world to believe that her son never had a gun (hindi siya nanlaban — he did not fight back), that he was not an animal to be slaughtered in the streets.  

We Filipinos who are not steeped in the history of the British throne may find the character names confusing. For example, Richard III is also known as Gloucester. One wonders what the effect might have been if the characters who are named after their British fiefdoms had the names of Philippine provincial capitals instead, e.g., Davao, Laoag. The originally minor role of Catesby (Goldie Soon) is amusingly inflated to a Mocha Uson look-alike, the Pinoy Richard III’s own private dancer (“a dancer for money, I’ll do what you want me to do,” as Tina Turner sang) who has her own pair of trolls. In case one doesn’t get it, the first act ends with Richard III (Teroy Guzman) adopting the famous presidential at-ease stance: one arm across the chest, proping up the other arm whose thumb and index fingers coyly frame the face.

Lord Acton has less famously reminded us that “Great men are almost always bad men even when they exercise influence and not authority; still more when you add the tendency of the certainty of corruption by authority.” The better known Acton quote is “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” RD3RD is set in the tambakan (garbage dump), where many Filipinos actually live in the midst of daily death and decay. Colloquially, the term kalakal (trade) refers to the scraps garbage scavengers scrounge for in order to survive. The production design plays on this theme with all the actors costumed in variations on plastic garbage bags and discarded cartons. Their faces are veined and in varying states of putrefaction: naagnas na. It is a world of the damned, as doomed as those who are condemned to repeat their history, a nightmare from which we are still trying to awake.

For those who missed this brief three-weekend introductory run of RD3RD, and there are many who didn’t get to see it because the Black Box Theater in the old Ateneo Communications Building, is just about the size of two classrooms and seats only a hundred at a time, take heart. The grander, scaled up version of RD3RD will be staged in March at the magnificent Arete, Ateneo’s creativity hub at Gate 3 of Katipunan Avenue. RD3RD is not your conventional Shakespeare, but it is the one that speaks to us best.

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