Review: Richard III at York Theatre Royal

I’m sorry it’s been so long since I last posted on this blog! I was originally planning to update it every week, but then the new university term started, and all its fantastic opportunities for insane busyness quickly made that goal a joke. I’ve now had my last seminar of term, with wine and mince pies – we were discussing Twelfth Night so apparently it relates to the theme of festivity. And I have a bit more free time to watch and blog about a very different work in the Shakespearean canon – his great combination of history and tragedy, Richard III.

The set for Loveday Ingram’s new production at the York Theatre Royal looks thoroughly medieval. The stage floor, walls and extension are all mocked-up tombstones, covered in italic script. It’s therefore a shock to the audience, after gazing on this doomy setting, when the beginning of the play itself is signified by a burst of dubstep as the modern-dress cast cavort in celebration of the end to their winter of discontent brought about by Edward IV’s reign. This production of Richard III also has a degree of festivity, of a very dark sort.

In part, this is due to the unique position this production finds itself in. After the recent discovery of Richard’s skeleton in a Leicester car park, and the subsequent row over whether he should be re-buried in York, the king is inspiring surprising passion for someone who died in 1485 (the last English monarch to die in battle). Part of his fame is, of course, due to this play – but you don’t have to be a medieval history fan to sense that Richard III’s Shakespearen reputation may not be entirely deserved. His manipulation, murders (including that of the Princes in the Tower) and  is a terrific character but probably not an accurate reflection of the real person he was based on – and the fact that Shakespeare was writing when Richard’s rivals, the Tudor dynasty, ruled England is probably no coincidence.

This production is part of York’s Richard III: Rumour and Reality festival, which aims to re-examine the myths surrounding the king over a twelve-month period. It’s therefore slightly embarrassing that Shakespeare so proudly and convincingly presents rumours at their worst. The Theatre Royal’s approach is therefore not to try to excuse or ignore the evil of Shakespeare’s Richard, but to let the audience feel the dangerous power of his seductive charm.

In the opening scene,  Ian Bartholomew as Richard watches from the sides until the revellers disperse, then proceeds to dominate the audience’s attention. His delivery of the famous opening soliloquy varies from detached observation of the end of “the winter of our discontent”, to mockery of the soldier who now “capers nimbly in a lady’s chamber” that generates laughter from the audience, to bitterness about his body – “dogs bark at me as I halt by them” – to a calm admission of his intention to be “subtle, false and treacherous”. It’s the start of a commanding performance that explores every nuance of emotion, but also a surprisingly charismatic one. Bartholomew’s Richard is no bitter, introverted villain, dwelling on his deformities. Indeed, the only actor with a visible handicap is Charles Daish as Clarence, who bravely carried on acting on crutches after an accident. Bartholomew is given a prosthetic hunchback, but it only affects the plot once, and he is cunning enough to turn it into an advantage – when Richard’s young nephew demands a piggyback and tries to jump on his shoulders, he cries out in initially genuine, then staged pain – and uses it as an opportunity to ‘collapse’ into the throne he covets.

The production is lively and often blackly funny, with scenes of slapstick involving a severed head.Bartholomew’s Richard is constantly performing in order to manipulate others, indicated in the famous scene where he manages to court Lady Anne over the corpse of her husband whom he murdered – after he wins her over and she exits, he gives a little bow to the audience, jubilant at his own success. He’s also surprisingly funny. Richard’s staged prayer in order to win the common people onto his side is staged with Richard standing on a balcony and the lights up in the auditorium, putting the audience into the position of his new followers.

But the emphasis on theatricality sometimes feels strained and exhausting. The supporting cast do a good job of finding their character’s essences – special mention should go to Natalie Burt’s vulnerable and grief-torn Anne, Paul Greenwood’s scheming roué Hastings and Siobhan McCarthy’s strong-willed Queen Elizabeth. But they each tend to stick to a single note, and too much of the production is carried out at top volume. When Richard schemes to marry his niece, and Elizabeth declares that she’ll pretend her daughter’s illegitimate if it will protect her from marrying her brothers’ murderer, she’s a desperate woman willing to reject her society’s moral standards to stand up to this tyrant. This scene could have been made more powerful if McCarthy had delivered the threat quietly and seemingly calmly, rather than screaming it at the top of her lungs.

The big-budget production similarly risks going over the top. There was a clever use of video projection onto the gravestone set to show Clarence drowning, but some heavy rainstorm effects felt like pointless showing off that risked veering into ‘it was a dark and stormy night’ territory.

Thank goodness, then, for Ian Bartholomew. In the second act, when his Richard gains power only for his former allies to turn against his despotic reign, he subtly conveys his character’s slipping confidence as his charisma fails him. The brief look of hurt on Richard’s face when his own mother tells him she now supports his enemies is strikingly memorable, as is his near-breakdown on the night before the Battle of Bosworth Field. We’ll never know what the real Richard was like now, but Bartholomew gives a fascinating portrayal.

After the cast gave their bows at the end, Bartholomew made an appeal for audiences to write to their local councils protesting the next round of theatre funding cuts. It was slightly surreal to see him discuss such a reasonable topic after two hours of playing a Shakespearean villain – especially since he was still wearing armour and covered in blood from his own death – but it’s a really worthwhile cause. If there’s a theatre in your local area that you love, you can join the campaign at www.mytheatrematters.com.

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