January 28, 2007, by Peter Kirwan
Richard III (RSC) @ The Courtyard Theatre
It’s impossible not to notice that, throughout all the publicity material, posters, press shots, reviews and everything else surrounding the fourth installment in Michael Boyd’s history cycle, there is only one face leering out. Despite the emphasis that this company has placed on ensemble playing, despite the universal praise for the all-round excellence of the acting in the ‘Henry VI’ trilogy, despite him only having emerged as a major RSC figure over the last year, this is Jonathan Slinger’s play. It is he who, in a first for this company, takes a unique bow amid the curtain calls. It is he who dominates the stage and the critical reviews with his funny, evil, sickeningly unpleasant portrayal of one of Shakespeare’s best-known roles. It is he, in short, who IS this production.
While it seems unfair to focus all the attention of such a huge production (3 and a half hours, with an enormous cast and big concept) on one actor, it has always been impossible to dissociate this play from its lead character. Slinger’s Richard is a typically nasty bit of work, full of dark humour, excess spittle and a furiously kinetic energy that propels him on one bad leg around the stage. It’s a rivetting performance, though it did at times feel stuck in one gear. I got the impression that he wasn’t having one of his best performances, and certainly didn’t seem as happy as I’ve seen him before at the end of the play. Whether or not it was his best, it was definitely a solid Richard and a surprisingly sympathetic one at times. In his dream, he awoke to find his hump gone and his arm and leg whole, and gave his first genuine laugh of the whole play as he danced around, revelling in his momentary health
No play can stand on one man alone though (are you listening, Trevor Nunn and Ian McKellen?), and the production itself was a daring one. Though linked by set, music and aspects of style to the ‘Henry VI’ plays, the designers completely reinvented the setting, updating it to contemporary times. Soldiers wielded guns, Richard used helicoptors to intercept Henry’s funeral procession and Tyrrell recorded the death of the princes on a digital camera. Richard presented the crown prince with an enormous orange space hopper (which found its way my lap), and he cordoned off the stage with police tape for the benefit of the Lord Mayor. The contemporary setting seemed to work, though with the usual complaints muttered about people saying “Swords” before holding up “Guns” (it’s figurative!).
Boyd’s love of ghosts carried across to this play, with Henry VI lying down in front of Richard at his coronation and York crowning his son. The final ghost scene, too, took an interesting twist- the dream Richard’s healthy body was in turn wounded by each ghost as it passed, reducing him once more to his deformed and shrivelled self.
There were strong performances throughout. Julius D’Silva deserves special mention for his utterly creepy Catesby, here an efficient and emotionless lawyer who caused as much harm with his pen as others did with their guns. Richard Cordery’s Buckingham had an unusual hold over Richard, ordering him around and even grabbing him by the throat at one point, yet finally reduced to carrying his monarch on his shoulders after his execution. Katy Stephens was also excellent as Margaret, carrying her dead son’s skeleton on her back and laying out his bones as she cursed her foes. Margaret is frequently cut from stand-alone productions, so it was good to see her in the context of what had come before and relishing her role as the voice of the past. Thankfully, the scenes of lamenting women were partly abbreviated- they do drag on something rotten, however well they’re performed.
I have to confess to being a little disappointed. It was an excellent production, just not as good as the three earlier episodes. Partly it’s the fact that ‘Richard III’ is, controversially, one of my least favourite Shakespeare plays. While Slinger’s performance was excellent, it was disappointing how little many of the rest of the ensemble had to do, and the finale rushed the battle scene, Richard dying suddenly and undramatically, hitting the floor in a corner before we’d even seen the danger to him.
Disappointment does not mean lack of enjoyment though. Yes, it wasn’t as good as I’d hoped, but it was still excellent and a cut above the average RSC production. The Courtyard allowed for a ‘Richard III’ that played up close and personal, with Richard insinuating himself among the audience as much as his onstage companions. 3 and a half hours flew by, and as an ending to the tetralogy it fitted very nicely. Jonathan Slinger is now pretty much guaranteed to be established as a major player, and the company as a whole can be proud of an impressive achievement. Roll on ‘Richard II’ in a few months!