February 10, 2011, by Peter Kirwan

Richard III (Propeller) @ The Belgrade, Coventry

In stark contrast to last night’s interval concert, audience serenades and jovial banter, Propeller last night erected a stony wall between the audience and the stage. As Richard Clothier’s Richard delivered his "Was ever woman in this humour wooed?" speech, he limped about the stage and then paused. A woman in the front row was using her phone. He waited, then politely said "When you’re ready", occasioning a mumbled apology from the woman, before resuming his speech. While sympathising with Clothier’s annoyance (one wishes, in retrospect, that he’d unleashed the terrifying masked attendants who prowled among the audience at the start of the second half!), the effect of this moment was to snap the audience out of the production. Where the company’s Errors was characterised by its easygoing ensemble nature and the fluidity of its performativity (one always saw the actors, not the characters), Richard III was an entirely different beast, a more traditional production that maintained a stylistic unity and a fourth wall throughout.

This was, of course, entirely appropriate to a play which deals with far more sombre subject matter than Propeller’s previous few productions. A direct sequel to the company’s Rose Rage, Edward Hall and designer Michael Pavelka adopted the trappings of an abattoir as a thematic set – transparent plastic curtains, blunt tools, stained chopping blocks and a silent chorus wearing face masks made up of bandages. Screens were pushed around the stage, allowing characters to appear and disappear fluidly, and an England flag was run up a post; this abattoir was England, a place in which people were coolly butchered and strung up. Violence was senseless, bloody and industrialised, condemned characters becoming meat. In a bid for humour – although not actually hugely funny – the violence became increasingly gory: Clarence was killed by a Murderer drilling into his head; Catesby took a chainsaw to Hastings behind a plastic curtain, ending the first half with the splatter of blood on the wall; and Buckingham had his entrails drawn out with a huge rusty hook. Drawing on traditions of grand guignol and black comic horror, the gore sometimes felt unnecessary but acted as a necessary contrast to the sanitised scheming of the prime movers and shakers.

This was seen in the foregrounding of Catesby (David Newman) and Ratcliffe (Dugald Bruce-Lockhart) as civil servants. Catesby, with slicked-back hair and a permanent sneer, was the consummate amoral servant, taking pleasure in his casual slighting of his peers. As Hastings defied Richard, Catesby smiled unpleasantly before leaving the stage to make his report. After Hastings was left alone, Catesby himself put on gloves and revved up a chainsaw, pushing Hastings behind the curtain. Ratcliffe was perhaps even more terrifying. Suited and tailed, he spent most of the production watching his pocket-watch, which ticked loudly over the sound system, creating an urgent and pressing underscore. Where Catesby took pleasure in his involvement, Ratcliffe was utterly indifferent to his actions. An administrator responsible for making sure everything happened to time, he was frequently found in the abattoir surrounded by the chorus, holding up his watch until the ticking stopped, at which point he nodded for the killings to commence. When it came to Richard’s final death, Ratcliffe and his watch were still there. While this was Richard’s story, then, an underlying current made it clear that it was administrators, not monarchs, who perpetuated the systems.

The role of Catesby and Ratcliffe was pointed up even further in the case of Tyrrell (Wayne Cater). With a plastic face mask, braces and a selection of torture instruments, Tyrrell formed an imposing and entirely silent presence. As Richard quizzed him, Catesby and Ratcliffe stood either side of Richard and spoke on his behalf. Their mediation between decision-maker and blunt instrument reinforced the impression that they were guiding the action to its inexorable, time-dependent conclusion, diminishing Richard’s own agency. Richard’s own attempts to take control over his own destiny were manifested in his own murders – he entered following Clarence’s death to dispatch both of the Murderers; he suffocated and then snapped Anne’s neck in the middle of the court, clutching her to his chest as if in an embrace; and he stabbed Tyrrell in the back. While using this to maintain a state of fear and isolation, it increasingly troubled him. As Tyrrell died, the Chorus sang a children’s song which slowed down to silence as he fell. Suddenly, as if a record starting up again, their voices sprang back into life, and Tyrrell leapt to his feet and strode off the stage, to Richard’s horror. He was already beginning to see his ghosts.

Clothier’s Richard was a charismatic figure. While the cast were mostly dressed in late Victorian/Edwardian formal and butchering dress, Richard stood a head taller than most, exaggerated by his bleached blond hair, and wore a black outfit with cloak that had a metallic sheen to it. With only one hand, and a leg in metal brace, he was clearly debilitated but still stronger than those around him (his own murders were often conducted with his remaining hand around the victim’s throat). His clipped accent and perfect articulation were convincing, both for his onstage gulls and the theatre audience who wished to believe in a Richard who could command such respect. Entirely insincere, he won people over with showmanship, whether whipping flowers out of his sleeve for Anne or waiting patiently on bended knee before Elizabeth as she agreed to give him her daughter.

The women, played entirely straight, were one of the production’s strongest aspects. Despite heavy cutting (Clarence’s children, Dorset, the scene of the women trying to get into the tower), Margaret was retained in the sober, bitter person of Tony Bell, and Anne and Elizabeth were given plenty of time to make an impact as the production’s emotional core. Jon Trenchard’s Anne was dwarved by Richard, a particularly brutal factor in the suffocating death scene, which Richard preceded by explaining directly to Anne that he needed to marry Elizabeth’s daughter. Trenchard’s delicate voice and quavering demeanour rendered Richard’s forthright actions in the wooing scene particualrly despicable/compelling. The moment in which Anne slowly, tentatively offered her hand for his ring was perverted after her murder – two flunkies attempted to pull the body away, but Richard grabbed her hand and attempted to pull the ring off. Failing, he turned and bit the whole finger off, spitting it out casually as he reclaimed the ring for his new wife.

The treatment of the dead was a recurring point of comedy. Bodies were dumped into bags, which were then tossed over shoulders, thrown to the side or beaten mercilessly. The entrace for Richard’s coronation was particularly impressive: to an electic guitar riff, the Chorus sang a Latin chant, and Richard and Anne entered along a carpet of bodybags (Richard confidently, Anne struggling to stay upright). The disrespectful and casual treatment of bodies was, of course, a comment on the value placed on life, but also on the memories of the dead: Richard’s need to forget his victims was brought to the fore, and undone in the face of Tyrrell’s ghost. This motif was central to the Bosworth Field night scene. Richard and Robert Hands’s Richmond were placed back to back on a gurney, and a series of upright, struggling bodybags was revealed behind them. Unzipping themselves, the ghosts emerged in turn to walk around the gurney, wishing Richard to sweet dreams and awaking the amazed Richmond. I particularly disliked the decision to overlap the speeches so that the enemies were addressed simultaneously, as it meant we missed much of the poetry and symmetry of the scene, but the visual image was extremely effective.

Music was central to the overall effect of the production, unifying the comic/grotesque and the more solemn elements. The company sang a series of Latin chants and devotional hymns, mostly acapella, and in juxtaposition with the casual violence the appeal to the divine was peculiarly compelling, even desperate, as if the anonymous characters were searching for meaning in their actions. It also served to satirise the use of religion to justify actions, most powerfully as Richard performed his praying and flagellation for the benefit of the mob. Two variations in the music had varying success: the high-pitched children’s nursery rhyme that accompanied the princes – two expressive puppets manipulated by the company – sounded a note of pathos and innocence that served these scenes well. The diminutive size of the puppets made their presence in the adult scenes (particularly that before the tower) extremely vulnerable, with Richard towering above them; and the later appearance of their heads in a glass jar was horrific. The other musical interlude was the "Scrivener’s Rap", a Billy Bragg-esque call to arms by Tony Bell in a Cockney accent, that attempted to establish a note of civic discord but was jarringly out of place.

The other performances were strong, establishing key presences within a linear succession of deaths. John Dougall as Clarence gave another strong vocal performance, articulating his dream in hugely evocative terms. The character was seen being blinded early on after his arrest, and Dougall found a wonderful dignity in the character, standing in night-shirt in his prison cell and looking into an unseen distance as he addressed the murderers. Robert Hands began as a debauched Edward IV, stagging about the stage topless and drunk before hugging his brothers for a group photograph, but descended into sickly spluttering as he lay on a surgical chair that doubled as a throne. Thomas Padden’s Hastings and Chris Myles’s Buckingham, meanwhile, began in the Catesby and Ratcliffe supportive roles, but made the fatal error of developing independent personalities which immediately incurred Richard’s wrath. Within a system dependent on complicit, passive administration, there was no room for demands of loyalty or reward.

While this was one of the less successful of the Propeller productions I’ve been fortunate enough to see, the very fact that it became a collaborative production without a single dominating figure was impressive enough. The progression towards the climax of Richard’s tragedy was actually quite dull, with too much lost in the rush (the prioritisation of Stanley’s subplot towards the end, for example, made very little impression). The end was fitting, however. Richard entered on the same surgical chair on which Edward had died, sputtering blood and fatally wounded, as he cried for a horse. Richmond entered and shot him. Turning to the audience, Richmond kneeled and raised his arms to heaven – one hand clutching a crucifix, the other a pistol, while the crown rested on his head. As he delivered his speech of piety, on "That would with treason wound this land’s fair peace", Richard began laughing, a hacking, cruel cackle. Richmond stood up and shot him again in the head and returned to the audience. The undercutting of Richmond’s own holy image by the laughing Richard reminded us, once more, that this was an ongoing story of big ambitions and performed sentiments; but behind the saintly facade, the dirty machinery of slaughter still stood.

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