The Royal Shakespeare Company continues its trawl through the annals of the House of Plantagenet, specifically following on from the recent productions of Rebellion and Wars of the Roses, with this strikingly designed new production of Richard III, and a satisfying continuity of casting in many of the leading roles, including the welcome return of Arthur Hughes as King Richard, the first time a disabled actor has taken this part in the history of the Company.
Edward IV reigns as King of England, but Richard, Duke of Gloucester has other ideas. First, eliminate his kindly brother George, Duke of Clarence. Then marry Lady Anne, who had been previously married to Henry VI’s son Edward of Westminster, who died at the Battle of Tewkesbury. Edward IV dies naturally, but Richard can’t tolerate his son, the twelve year old Edward V, being king. He enlists the Duke of Buckingham to engineer his path to the throne, but when Buckingham refuses to kill Edward, he gets professional assassin Tyrell to do the deed instead. The young prince is murdered in the tower along with his brother. But it’s still not enough; and when Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, arrives with an army to claim the throne, it results in the Battle of Bosworth Field and we all know what happened there. (You don’t? You’ll have to see this play then.)
Shakespeare didn’t hold back from presenting Richard as the architect of a lot of blood and violence, and Gregory Doran’s production rings the changes by portraying these deaths in a wide range of styles, from the literally gory to the subtly suggested. It is perhaps curious that Shakespeare does not let us see the actual death of King Richard in battle: “Alarums. Enter King Richard and Richmond; and exeunt fighting. Retreat and flourish. Re-enter Richmond, Stanley bearing the crown, with divers other Lords, and Forces.” This gives a director carte blanche to finish Richard III off in whatever manner they wish, and Mr Doran has chosen to make it rather elegant and ethereal. Matt Daw’s inventive lighting design is used extensively to convey death, with maybe a quick flash of red light to depict one dispatch, or the visceral descent of vivid red seeping down the one feature of the set, a cenotaph-style tower, to suggest others. Death’s never far away in this play.
I know this isn’t a football match, but this production really is a game of two halves. Even with some judicious cutting, this is a long play, and the first Act takes us all the way from Shakespeare’s beginning to Act Four Scene One. The second Act begins with Richard’s coronation, Act Four Scene Two. As a result, we have more or less two hours before the interval, but then little more than an hour afterwards. Although there are obviously some highlights – the wannabe king’s pretence that he doesn’t seek the crown and is much happier with his virtuous Bible study is a sheer delight – the first Act has more than its fair share of longueurs. The second Act, however, is stuffed with theatrical magic and flies by. The exquisite grandeur of the Coronation. The knife-edge debate between Richard and Elizabeth regarding his plan to marry her daughter. The superb staging of the Ghosts that taunt Richard the night before Bosworth Field, and how they merge to become his ghostly horse for which he’d give his kingdom.
However, the overall vibe of the production is distinctly uneven. It veers from bloodthirsty tragedy to deep dark farce, and you can never quite pin down exactly what it is that Doran wants us to take away from it. On the one hand, for example, you have a very traditional presentation of the bereft Queen Margaret, Henry VI’s widow, with Minnie Gale giving a very accomplished portrayal of someone so destroyed by grief that they have lost all their senses. On the other hand, the two murderers almost descend to vaudeville with their interchanges and re-appear very tongue-in-cheek as the two godly clerics either side of Richard when’s he allegedly resisting being made king. Stephen Brimson Lewis’ set suggests the staging is purely of its actual era – the music, the costumes etc are all truly fifteenth century; but then you have a couple of anachronistic piece to camera moments from Richard and his rival Richmond just before the battle as if we were watching CNN.
Fortunately the production is blessed with some terrific performances, none more than Arthur Hughes as Richard. Because Mr Hughes genuinely has a physical disability, that frees him up from the arduousness of adopting a stoop or mimicking a hunchback, so visually it’s a much more convincing presentation than you’ve ever seen the character before. With ambition written through him like a stick of rock, he fair darts about the stage in his quest to Get Kingship Done, as the phrase might be today. He doesn’t care if we like him or not; he sees other people as either useful tools or mere obstructions and has no compunction about dismissively eliminating them – even his own wife. Mr Hughes is completely riveting throughout the play, his eyes calculating risks, his gestures mocking all those around him, his vocal delivery conveying that spoilt petulance of a man who can see no other outcome than his own preferment. It’s a wonderful performance.
Kirsty Bushell is also superb as Queen Elizabeth Woodville, controlling her own grief and behaviour with quiet suppression, as a perfect contrast to the brashness of the King, or the loud lamentation of Margaret. Claire Benedict has fantastic stage presence and natural authority as the Duchess of York, and Rosie Sheehy cuts exactly the right amount of fury and suffering as Lady Anne. Jamie Wilkes’ Buckingham is delightfully conspiratorial, punching the air with a very un-Shakespearean Yes! when Richard manipulates his way to the throne. Micah Balfour is excellent as the good-humoured, trusting Hastings, Nicholas Armfield is a suitably noble Earl of Richmond (he also has a terrific moment as the Bishop of Ely when King Richard commends his strawberries), and there’s great support from Matthew Duckett as Catesby and Simon Coates as Stanley.
In addition, Ben Hall absolutely captures Clarence’s innocence and shock at being fatally lied to, and Conor Glean and Joeravar Sangha are simply brilliant as the Murderers. And huge appreciation for our Boy Treble, whose vocal purity cut through the villainy like a sword of light; for our performance on Friday night, we think he was Lysander Newton, but I am sure all four taking the role are terrific.
Part gruesome drama, part black comedy; at times slow and cumbersome, at others jam-packed with incident. A bit like life, really. But it’s the many highlights that you remember and that you appreciate, and this production is certainly a convincing and memorable end to the Plantagenets. It continues at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre all the way through till 6th August when it is joined with the new production of All’s Well That Ends Well, and then both continue until 8th October.
Production photos by Ellie Kurttz