March 4, 2008, by Peter Kirwan

Richard III (RSC) @ The Courtyard Theatre: Highlights

The big finish! And, if I’m truly honest, it was a slightly disappointing end to the week. Not because of the company, who kept up the energy right to the end, but for two reasons. Firstly, Richard III is a play dominated by one performance. The wonderful thing about the Histories ensemble is that there are so many good performers, and it’s a shame that the last play of the eight is so dominated by the title character, most of the rest of the company only getting a scene or two to shine. The second slight disappointment came from the fact that this production felt so dissociated from the others, in that it translated itself into modern dress. I have nothing against modern dress productions, but when the other seven were all medieval or Elizabethan (with a hint of WWI in Henry V), it felt quite odd that suddenly we were seeing suits and digital cameras on stage, making it feel that little bit separated from the other productions.

BUT, having got the disappointments out of the way, this production was vastly improved on last time, and the company were as good as ever. Highlights as follows:

  • Yet again topping the bill, Julius D’Silva was a fascinating Catesby. Suited and bespectacled, calm and threatening, D’Silva reinvented Catesby as part-cleric, part-administrator. He heralded the deaths of Vaughan and Hastings by entering with a smile and a cappucino. This Catesby killed with memos and headlines, the man making Richard’s takover happen behind the scenes. Most hysterically, in the riot staged for the Mayor’s (Kieran Hill) benefit, he donned a headset and littered the stage himself, before barking commands (“Go helicoptors, go explosion”), in effect stage-managing the fake riot, throwing up his arms in triumph as all the cues went off as planned. Loyal to Richard right to the end, he panted in absolute shock at the end of the battle as he looked on his dead leader. It was one of those performances which can make you really see a character for the first time.
  • A couple of very nice links came out of seeing the play so close to the Henry VI trilogy. Chris McGill as Grey told Margaret how Northumberland had weeped while she killed York – and of course, it was McGill who had played Northumberland in the previous play, giving a lovely echo to this speech. A line was also added to Stanley’s meeting in the field with Richmond from 1 Henry VI, allowing Keith Bartlett to christen Lex Shrapnel with “Now art thou seal’d the son of chivalry” – having made the same exchange when they played Talbot and John Talbot in the earlier play. Finally, the Young York was seen laying out tiny pebbles in the same pattern that his grandfather had once done when demonstrating to Warwick and Salisbury his claim to the throne, in a very neat touch.
  • Nick Asbury and Keith Dunphy excelled as Vaughan and Lovell, the two murderers of Clarence. Dunphy brought all the menace he had displayed as Young Clifford to the role, while Asbury blustered. The two made an excellent comic pair, particularly as they revealed enormous machetes from inside their tailored suits. The continuation of their story was interesting, as first Catesby and Ratcliffe arrested Vaughan as he tried to flee the country, then had him executed at Lovell’s hand along with Rivers and Grey.
  • Jonathan Slinger gave another impressive performance as Richard, particularly dwelling on the character’s sexual obsessions, including kissing Lady Grey passionately when passing on a kiss for her daughter, leering at women in the front row and spitting defiance as he talked of his misshapen body. In contrast, his skipping delight in the dream sequence where he awoke to find himself healed was moving in its childlike joy, and after the dream his moment of soul-searching finally showed the pain of the character, as he cried out “Am I a villain?”
  • Richard Cordery was a very good Buckingham, and provided the best laugh of the performance with his withering comments on the Young York’s wit. “So cunning and so young”, then a long pause, a look up into the galleries with his eyes rolling and: “Wonderful”.
  • Family became very important in the play’s closing moments. As Richard screamed for a horse, his father (Clive Wood) appeared silently on the balcony, and Richard scrambled towards him. As he pleaded with his dead father, the ghosts of his dead mother and nephews appeared with him. Later, at the climax of the play, the dead appeared all around the balconies watching over Richmond’s ascension, and all were grouped in their family groups: Warwick and Anne; Clarence and his children; Hastings and Shore; Edward and his Queen etc. Richard’s isolation was part of his downfall.
  • The dream sequence, where a newly-healed Richard had his disabilities revisited upon him by those he had murdered, was a brilliant concept, linked in to the ways in which the ghosts had been murdered. Where Hastings (an excellent Tom Hodgkins) had had strawberries smeared across his head by Richard, he smeared Richard’s huge birthmark onto his shaved head. Clarence, felled by a sword swipe across his guts, sliced Richard across the same, causing his hunched posture. Rivers, shot in the leg before his execution, shot Richard in the same place, causing his limp. It was a brilliant move that made physical the curses of the ghosts.
  • James Tucker, as Clarence, really impressed in his description of the dream, underscored by the always-effective music. Curled up in bed, he spoke his long speech beautifully, evoking the character’s fear to chilling effect.
  • Katy Stephens was also chilling as Margaret, evoking both her younger self and her previous role as Joan. The lifesize bones of her son that she laid out echoed Joan’s conjuring bones, and in talking to the young Marquis of Dorset, played by Wela Frasier, she saw the ghost of her boy, coming close to Dorset and almost embracing him. Her cursing was powerful, and in her brief scenes she once again dominated the stage.
  • Ann Ogbomo was a highlight as Queen Elizabeth, handling her long rhetorical scenes well and visibly becoming more crushed as her family was taken from her one by one. Her cries were heartbreaking.
  • Mistress Shore (Alexia Healy) was brought on for additional scenes, appearing in an early street scene as well as dressed in just an oversized shirt with Hastings. Most effectively, Richard brought her on in the council scene when condemning her, putting Hastings in the awful position of having to distance himself while looking on her bloodied body. Tom Hodgkins was excellent here, showing the panic of the character, and their reunion in death felt like a sort of happy ending.
  • I don’t know what their names were, but the four child actors were very good, particularly the ones playing the young Edward and York, holding their own very well among the adults.

There were lots of other excellent moments: Geoffrey Streatfeild as a blindfolded Rivers fumbling in the dark only to find his dead brother; Hannah Barrie’s poisoned Anne starting to look faint during the slow-motion party scene; Chuk Iwuji prostrating himself before Richard as the dead Henry VI before somersaulting to his feet and Lex Shrapnel on top form as the conquering Richmond, spinning the massive staircase holding Richard around and pushing it hard into a wall. It was dominated by Slinger’s performance, but the fantastic concepts and solid performances in the other roles kept the long play moving quickly. Another standing ovation, in recognition of the whole week as much as this performance, was a fitting end to a fantastic few days.

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