September 8, 2006, by Peter Kirwan

Richard III (RADA) @ The Swan Theatre

The third Youth production, and the most ambitious so far- today saw RADA take on Shakespeare’s second-longest play with a cast of eleven and a 1 hr 45 minute running time, along with projections, recorded sound effects and lighting cues.

There was one major reason why this wasn’t very good- the editing of the text was simply appalling. The brief for these productions was to create a shortened version of the text, suitable for school children and education work, and running about an hour and a half or less. Here, the editor unfortunately completely failed.

The play we were given consisted of a stripped down version of the text that tried to include pretty much every single character and event- even to the appearance of Clarence’s children. Rather than streamline the action or conflate parts, the editor chose to just cut large chunks of the text- Richard’s “Was ever woman in this humour wooed?” soliloquy was only five lines long, for example.

Worse, ALL of the women’s ‘wailing scenes’ were kept. As anyone who’s seen a film version of ‘Richard III’ knows, these are the first things to cut, as they don’t advance plot or character, simply comment rhetorically on the action. Yet the editor insisted on keeping the scenes near-intact, at the expense of cutting large chunks of the main plot and dialogue. I can only assume that this was out of a concern of giving the male and female actors equal chance to shine on the stage, but doing this results in an unbalanced and heavily weepy play, that lessens the importance of the truly interesting characters like Hastings, Buckingham and Tyrrell. In a full text, the women’s scenes are fantastic and a good relief from the politics of the main action- but when given such prominence in a stripped text, they overshadow the main action, and their repetitiveness becomes irritating.

Even more ignorant was the use of Margaret, who is present in ‘Richard III’ as the last Lancastrian survivor of the ‘Henry VI’ trilogy. In a cycle of the plays, such as the RSC are doing now, she is a chilling reminder of what has just gone before. To an Elizabethan audience, well versed in the politics and stage history of the character, she would have been a thrilling cameo and blast from the past. But in a stand-alone production designed to introduce school-age children to a complex play, there is no sense in giving such dominance to a character who spends her lengthy appearances talking about long-dead people who the audience have never heard of, with no explanations as to who they were or what happened. She is a character designed for an audience who know the plot- and for an educational piece, simply confuses issues yet further.

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So, the editing was, in my opinion, appalling, and made a mess of what was otherwise an interesting production. The highlight was Ross Armstrong’s Richard, a manic and well-spoken man who fawned, spat, gesticulated and fought like a man possessed. While conforming to all the stereotypes of the RADA actor (the RP voices and emotive stances!), he really impressed and carried the bulk of the production on his (hunched) shoulders.

This was a serious-minded production, but came to life in an excellent orations scene, with Catesby in particular trying unconvincingly to persuade us to support Richard, looking at Buckingham in desperation for back-up but failing miserably- while other sections of the audience were thrown sweets or asked to hail Richard. Buckingham made an excellent double-act with Richard, and solid performances from Edward, Clarence, Tyrrell and a gloriously brattish Prince Edward added to some excellent moments. The only slightly disappointing performance was Louise Ford’s Lady Anne, who gave a committed and emotional portrayal that tended towards the overblown. She had a peculiar way of holding her arms straight down at her sides and rocking back and forth with her entire upper torso, which unfortunately gave her the jerky look of a puppet being torn back and forth and was quite distracting.

Despite this last, it was a full and interesting production, with some very nice moments and strong lead performances. The editing let down a good cast- and I think it would be interesting to see how this is received in schools, as I personally believe that it remains too complex. To simply cut or conflate some characters or scenes – as ‘All’s Well’ and ‘Much Ado’ did with ingenuity- would have been a far more effective approach.

Posted in Theatre review