For centuries, actors from David Garrick to Al Pacino have donned the hump to play the title role of Shakespeare’s “Richard III.” So when the bones of the real Richard were recently discovered below a London parking lot, we sought out a reaction from someone who’d just tackled the role of the classic villain. Paging Ron Cephas Jones, who played this last Plantagenet king in the summer of 2012. The acclaimed actor (Stephen Adly Guirgis’s “Our Lady of 121st Street”) toured in a production of “Richard III” in the Public Theater’s Mobile Shakespeare Unit, a travelling company setting up shop in the most unlikely places in New York City, including Rikers Island, Charlotte’s Place, and the Jamaica Service Program for Older Adults. ARTINFO spoke with Jones about his reaction to the momentous discovery.
Having played Richard III, how did you feel when you heard the news?
I felt an attachment, especially when I heard the word “slender.” That’s an adjective that is often used to describe me. I was fascinated by the photographs that showed the skull with a hole in it, confirming the fact that he was killed in a really brutal way. There was a curve to the spine, somewhat deformed, adding credibility to his look [in the Shakespeare play].
Do you think it’ll affect future productions of “Richard III’?
It’ll certainly add to the debate among historians and Shakespearean scholars. The story is the story. It won’t change that. But there may well be some directors who will want to explain these discoveries in new adaptations or versions. We’ll see in the future how they’ll treat this new information. But that’s the beauty of Shakespeare and this play. It’s constantly being reinvented.
How did your audiences, which probably aren’t that familiar with Shakespeare, react to your performance as Richard?
It was probably one of the most wonderful experiences of my acting career because they had every reaction you could possibly fathom. It’s really community theater, playing prisons and centers, and it’s all about telling a story. There were no sets. It took a little longer for audiences to get involved. But once they got used to the language, they settled into the play, responding in the way that they might to have responded in Shakespeare’s time. Vocally. They brought their children because they felt it was important to expose them to the play. It was a cut down version [90 minutes] so it moved pretty fast. But they forgot about looking at it with a critical eye and just made a passionate connection to the piece.
Do you suppose the prisoners at Riker’s who saw the play reacted to the news of the discovery with a sense of ownership?
I hope so. They were intrigued, fascinated, and horrified by him. And probably understood him more than other people might because of what they had gone through themselves. But that’s what you want. You want them to leave with a sense of ownership and wanting to know more about the guy.
Did it whet your appetite to do the role again?
Oh, definitely. Absolutely. Those kinds of roles really take a long time to really get them. I’d love the opportunity to play him again and get even deeper into the play and into this character. There are so many aspects to explore. And I was really happy to be exploring them with the mobile unit. The whole context added so much more to the play.
Did the sight of the bones lend a certain sympathy for Richard that you didn’t have before?
I found it very moving. When fact and fiction start to collide you more fully realize the humanity of these historical characters in ways you might not have before. It’s an awesome thing.