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Two Descants on Deformity

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From our correspondent Artur Vorrich, at the Imperial Theatre, Vorbarr Sultana. 

How many of us know by heart an Old-Earth play that reflects on our own situation? 

Before last night, I wouldn’t have bet a mark that any of the High Vor could answer yes to that question. I certainly couldn't. But I would have been wrong. 

Readers of this column will remember that some months ago Lord Ivan Vorpatril, newly returned from Ylla with his intriguing wife, was ... well, I’ll say bold enough to challenge Lord Auditor Vorkosigan to prove his vaunt of knowing by heart a play called The Tragedy of Richard the Third, written on Old Earth not only before the Diaspora but before humankind had even discovered electricity. Hearing about this challenge, a quick comconsult of the Encyclopedia Galactica informed me that this piece had once been a very popular property, and that its contents were sensitive, to say the least. In short, a deformed brother of a king sets out to usurp his throne, by most underhand and murderous means, and though he achieves his goal, briefly, he is soon struck down by righteous revolt. 

Exactly what medical condition this Richard suffered from is far from clear, and the play is at odds with historical evidence. In reality it seems the King, though hunch-backed, was not a mutant, but rather a victim of a disease that struck in adolescence and curved his spine, leaving one shoulder higher than the other. In the play, however, he is reputed a devil of the worst sort, an infant born with teeth and an appetite to match ; a “toad”, a “bottled spider”, and similar epithets. 

So for Lord Auditor Vorkosigan to be cast in this part is, to say the least, piquant. As anyone who watches HD or reads any current affairs must know, the damage from which Lord Vorkosigan's body suffers is not in any sense mutagenic, but purely teratogenic, a consequence of the Soltoxin antidote Her Grace the Vicereine was obliged to take following an assassination attempt on His Grace the Viceroy. But we are, after all, Barrayarans, and we know what we know – which does not always encourage discriminating judgement. 

I entered the auditorium last night, therefore, with some apprehension – not helped by noting the presence of His and Her Imperial Majesties flanking a decidedly hunched Lord Vorpatril ; though his intriguing wife seemed unaffected by the tensions crackling in the chamber. The Highest Vor were out in force, with two score Counts and their ladies (and often heirs) as well as such luminaries as the Dowager Lady Vorpatril and Commodore Koudelka and his family (including Lord Mark Vorkosigan, as elegantly saturnine as ever, and Commodore Galeni, who was mysteriously heard to say he’d seen it all before). There was also a large contingent of senior officers of all services. 

And then the lights dimmed and Lord Auditor Vorkosigan ... exploded onto the stage. I’m sorry if that’s unclear, but that’s how it seemed – one moment, lights and chatter, the next, darkness and this hunched, diminutive figure explaining exactly why it was that constant barracking and humiliation, for reasons entirely beyond his control, led him to violent and treacherous action. The old Terran Deist text says ‘Do unto others as you would be done by’ – and the inevitable corollary, however much we may dislike it, is ‘Expect others to do unto you as you have done by them’. Kick a Vor when he’s down, and you can’t complain when, once standing again, he trips you and really puts the boot in. 

Complete with exceptionally shiny boots, and elegant kicking action. 

But (surprising no-one with the slightest brains) it turns out that Lord Auditor Vorkosigan can (in every sense) act, and what might have been a serious embarrassment was in fact a triumph. The deformed usurper is as swiftly overthrown as he was enthroned, by a noble named Richmond – played by Edvard Vorlivier, made up to look remarkably like His Majesty – and Lord Vorkosigan made sure his performance was always as hopelessly doomed as it was bitterly understandable ; and so at once rebuked traditional attitudes and affirmed utmost loyalty. 

What I saw – what we saw – wasn’t Lord Auditor Vorkosigan as he is, but Lord Vorkosigan as he might have been, were he not utterly loyal ; a lesson in the pragmatic that Richard clearly didn’t understand, but Lord Auditor Vorkosigan does, to the utmost. To speak dangerously bluntly, he perhaps could – once – have seized power, but he couldn’t have kept it, any more than the late and unlamented Count Vordarian the Pretender ; and Lord Auditor Vorkosigan didn’t do so not only because he is deeply loyal to His Majesty, but because he knows that as deeply as he knows this old play. The part of Richard demands a startling lack of inhibition, and that was there in full measure ; yet beneath the glittering exuberance of Lord Auditor Vorkosigan’s performance there was a fascinating sense of restraint, as though Richard knew the sheer scope he allowed himself ensured that it could not be long maintained. 

Richard’s final come-uppance is signalled by the appearance to him, and to Richmond, on the night before they must meet in battle, of no less than eleven ghosts, all high-ranking victims of Richard’s vaunting ambition. The ghosts were not, as I had expected, holograms, but the actors in person, all colour leached from them save the blood from their wounds ; and the passion in their voices as they cursed their murderer and blessed his nemesis was shiveringly memorable. But not so memorable as what followed, when Richard awakes, fully aware of the curses heaped on his head, and for a long, staggering speech implodes under the pressure of a guilt that Lord Auditor Vorkosigan showed to have fragmented his innermost identity long before. I do not believe I have ever seen any actor, anywhere and in any medium, convey a shattering, multiple personality with such pure force and conviction ; nor so to convey (in the brief working-out of inevitabilities that followed) the mind and heart of a man wholly without hope and yet possessed still of seemingly limitless energy and courage. 

The whole thing was as mesmerising politically as it was artistically, as a deeply appreciative audience well understood ; and though this was a single as well as singular performance, the production will continue in repertory with Daniel Vorquilp, who has an exceptionally hard act to follow.



Thoughts During a Performance of The Tragedy of Richard III


“Now is the winter of our discontent …”

The words roll smoothly from my Vorish tongue
and all the coiling force within them pent
moves crooked limbs to crooked words, well sung.
To revel in his badness is allowed
and yet a vice, a vacuum of the heart
in which no debt is paid, no passion owed
to any but the self, alone, apart.
To kin and stranger equally untrue,
a fratricide, uxoricide, and worse,
as careless of all truth as of the glue
that binds the body politic in peace
to look beyond what gain a sword can hew.

Twit! And time to think of Fat Ninny.

“A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse.”