Leather, chrome and Shakespeare?

When IU Theatre’s “Richard III” opens next weekend, the Wars of the Roses will come to life on stage — in a leather-and-chrome kind of way.

Director Gavin Cameron-Webb has used the idea of a motorcycle gang to illustrate the fight between English rivals over the crown in the 1400s, which eventually saw Henry Tudor defeat Richard III. The factions within the royal House of Plantagenet used red and white roses to represent their loyalties, generating a beautiful-sounding name for what was in reality an ugly series of shifting alliances, feuds and battles.

“The motorcycle gang motif was prompted by the need to find an equivalent to the Wars of the Roses,” Cameron-Webb said. “These 15th-century English civil wars were more like gangland wars than a general conflict, and the nobles behaved like thugs. So the motif seemed to fit well and provide a good context for both actors and audience.”

While there will be no actual motorcycles on stage, he said the fondness for emblems and symbols held by both groups is a bonus for his directorial vision.

Richard III

King Richard III, gangland style.

“The nobles liked their own badges, just as how our culture perceives motorcycle gangs — in this way we, as an audience, can more easily follow who’s who on stage, since their names will be emblazoned on their leather-suited backs,” he said. “I would like for audiences to take away a keen appreciation of the power of propaganda and symbols.”

That power will also be highlighted on stage through visual cues and framing devices, including a VH1 Pop-Up Video-esque flat-screen “fact checker” that will display historical facts in opposition to Shakespeare’s version.

“Richard III” isn’t historically accurate, according to IU Department of Theatre and Drama professor Amy Cook, and was likely penned as a cautionary tale at a time when England was in danger of falling into chaos again. Shakespeare based his play on two historical sources written by and for the victors; it was important to portray Richard as a villain so as to justify the coup and regicide that put Henry VII, grandfather of Queen Elizabeth, on the throne. When Shakespeare wrote his play, the queen had no heir and wasn’t likely to have one, so the possibility of a violent succession was great. Forbidden to write about current political figures or religion, Cook said, playwrights had to turn to the past to tell the stories of their present.

“We are in the midst of a presidential election campaign, one in which both sides are making often unfounded and even untrue assertions,” Cameron-Webb said. “Shakespeare’s play, written more than 400 years ago, has successfully perpetuated the myth of a monster king. Repeat a lie often enough, as they say, and it becomes the truth.”

Looking for more detail? Plan to attend a lecture titled “Shakespeare’s ‘Richard III’ on Stage and Page,” led by Cook and English professor Linda Charnes at 5:30 p.m. Oct. 18 in the Studio Theatre.

As a fun bonus, the Theatre and Drama folks gave us a sneak preview of the play’s “soundtrack.” Listen here.

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