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Matthew Rauch had one of his first professional stage credits as Malcolm in STC’s 1995 production of Macbeth. Since then, he worked consistently in regional theatres for several years, including shows at Long Wharf Theatre, Signature Theatre and Hartford Stage, before Off-Broadway and Broadway roles at Red Bull Theater, Playwrights Horizons, Roundabout Theatre, The Public Theater and Lincoln Center Theater. A successful TV and film star as well (The Wolf of Wall Street, Netflix’s Chambers), he is excited to return to the stage and to STC and the work of Shakespeare, as Richard, Duke of Gloucester in Richard the Third. “I’m genuinely delighted to be back. I had a wonderful time working here the first time,” says Rauch. “I was fairly fresh out of school and I learned a tremendous amount. And to return after all this time to play this role is an honor and a thrill, particularly during Michael’s final season. I feel deeply grateful.”
STC: Richard the Third can be one of Shakespeare’s trickier plays to stage, and Richard a very complex role. How are you and director David Muse approaching the work and shaping the world of the play?
Matthew Rauch: It IS a tricky play, and a long one. It’s early Shakespeare, and in some ways the full text feels like a young writers’ play, in that he’s trying to do everything at once. But David is brilliant, and he has made, in my estimation, a brilliant version. He’s cut about 40% of the text and made it significantly more fleet and clear. Characters have been removed and/or combined, and much of the history of Lancaster and York has been condensed or removed. He felt, I think rightly, that the historical material is obscure and difficult to digest for a contemporary American audience, and can be very distracting from the thrust of the narrative. What remains is the basic arc of the play, and it’s much more linear; Richard’s rise to power and the story of those around him who are either directly complicit or look the other way. That story, of political complicity and its repercussions, seems like a good story to be telling right now.
In terms of the actual role, I honestly just started at the beginning. I was taught a long time ago that the way to approach a classic play is to pretend it’s a brand new play that was just sent to you in the mail. I find that to be very effective. Discard all of your expectations and preconceived notions and then just dive into the text. Shakespeare is always smarter than us, and everything an actor needs is in those words. The play is the map; the map is the play.
So – I read the play, and then I read David’s cut. And then he and I spoke at length. And I began to slowly but surely try and pour all of the words into my head, and in doing so began to build a preliminary roadmap. The first extensive conversation we had revolved primarily around Richard’s disability and how we might be interested in tackling that. And we talked about some of the themes of the play – complicity, family, sociopathy, some of the imagery and how it worked, etc. In doing so David and I developed a vocabulary for talking about the play and the role and how to work together – and we’re still having that conversation every day. It’s been a fantastic process thus far. The room is open and generous and collaborative. All of that starts with David, who is open and inclusive and a great leader.
STC: Many people know you from your four seasons on the Cinemax show Banshee, where you played a ruthless killer. Is that experience influencing your characterization of Richard?
MR: Banshee was a wonderful experience for me. I made lifelong friends and was part of a rather unique show. And I will always have a soft spot in my heart for that role. When I got the job I had no idea it would turn into four years of work. It’s always interesting to me when people characterize him as ruthless or terrifying or a killer. I know that’s how he functions in the story, but I always thought of him in much more human terms. In my mind he was simply loyal; a person who would do anything to protect the people he loved. So the violence was an inevitable offshoot of a human instinct to protect loved ones and receive protection in return. I’m always interested in finding humanity in the roles I play. That’s certainly true for Richard.
There were also technical aspects about shooting that show that informed my work. I learned a lot about stillness, about placement, and about being observational. (I also learned a lot about stunts – we did many of our own in the show.) The observational aspect is very much a part of Richard – he rarely misses a trick. But I must say that Richard is a completely different animal. He’s seldom still in this version. He has a restlessness, a consuming mind, and an inability to feel content.
STC: Can you talk about the violence in the show and how this production is handling the major deaths?
MR: In Shakespeare’s text, none of the deaths occur on stage. I think that David felt strongly that the themes of the play we are emphasizing would be much better suited to showing those killings. It is graphic but, to my mind, it’s necessary. Autocratic regimes use violence and fear to control both people and political narratives. Letting the audience see state-sponsored violence in the play highlights the rise of a tyrannical ruler and emphasizes the cost of complicity. It’s tough stuff but it’s also part of the world we’ve created, and softening it would soften the blow of the play.
MR: It’s difficult to talk about Michael without sounding hyperbolic. He is without question one of the greatest acting teachers and directors in the history of American theater. When I met him 25 years ago he was already a legend, and being in the rehearsal room with him back then was revelatory for the young actor that I was. I totally loved his bluntness, his lack of bullshit, and his ability to cut to the quick. He had zero patience for actors that weren’t prepared. He’s tough and rigorous and kind, and to me that’s a perfect combination. I think the best lesson I took away from him had to do with instinct; he has an extraordinary ability to tune in to instincts, and he trusted actors to follow them – but only when they weren’t self-indulgent. ‘Simplify and follow your instincts.’ It’s not a direct quote but that’s what I remember learning. I will never forget it, and I try to follow his lesson in my work every day. I know he’s retiring, but I still have a fantasy that I will be able to work with him again someday.
STC: What do you hope audiences take away from this production?
MR: Quite frankly and simply, the play speaks for itself. It doesn’t matter what side of the aisle you’re on. Political complicity is ugly to watch and the rise of a tyrant happens in the blink of an eye. The hunger for power and control is deeply pernicious and dangerous. I think that was Shakespeare’s message 500 years ago, and that message is still extraordinarily relevant.
Richard the Third runs from February 5—March 10. Tickets are available now at ShakespeareTheatre.org.
Photo of Matthew Rauch and Chris McKinney in Macbeth by Carol Pratt.
Photo of Matthew Rauch by Tony Powell.
Photo of Cara Ricketts and Matthew Rauch in rehearsal.
Photo of the cast of Henry V, directed by Michael Kahn, by Carol Pratt.