March 24, 2013, by Peter Kirwan

Richard III (SATTF) @ The Tobacco Factory, Bristol

I’m on record (well, Twitter) as being relatively sceptical about the recent finds in Leicester. The convenience of the archaeological team setting out to find Richard and discovering the trench and skeleton more or less on the first day of digging strikes me as being rather convenient, and I’m inclined to exercise a healthy caution. Regardless, however, for me the discovery has little interest beyond that of the amateur historian. It certainly adds nothing to my understanding of Shakespeare’s play. Unless you are are adhering to the most ridiculous standards of anachronistic antiquitarianism, there is no reason why we should change the ways we perform Richard III or attempt to match actor to the rather queer-looking reconstruction made by the team working from the skull. After all, Shakespeare knew none of this when writing the play.

As such, it was pleasing to see John Mackay (last seen by this reviewer playing Tyrrel in the same play for the RSC) playing Richard with withered arm and a gleefully Tudor disregard for ‘history’. This Richard was the stuff of Thomas More’s nightmares, a smiling and amoral trickster who, in the closing moments of the first half, circled the Tobacco Factory’s audience delivering the ‘I can smile and murder while I smile’ speech imported from Henry VI Part III, before offering to throw Hastings’ bloody head into the audience. Restricted to his right hand only throughout, Mackay staggered about the stage, leering and muttering as he arranged his gulls.

Mackay’s Richard straddled a fine line between intense and comical. Obviously funny moments such as the false throwing of Hastings’ head sat oddly within a performance that kept its distance from the audience even as he addressed them eye to eye. Richard seemed to want to let us know what he had done rather than convince or persuade us, or to build an ongoing relationship. This Richard simply needed an audience, a crowd to watch him. He took pleasure in his tricks, but not delight; this sallow, slim Richard was more Cassius than Edmund, a schemer whose plots existed primarily within the play world rather than being for the purpose of public display. This particularly came across in the apparent throwing away of lines such as the damning of Hastings or the ‘Was ever woman…’, with dramatic climaxes being sacrificed in preference for underlining conclusions.

The sense of an ambivalence in the production’s approach extended to the rather odd cutting. While Margaret was excluded, Rivers and Grey’s references to her prophecies were oddly retained. Richard’s soliloquy from 3 Henry VI was introduced and Mistress Shore was brought on stage (a cameo by stage manager Polly Meech, clad only in a bedsheet), but lines such as young York’s mockery of Richard’s hump were cut, and the princes excluded from the ghost scene while Henry VI was included. The eclectic cutting led to many moments such as these where the production referred to moments veiled from the production’s audience, creating local incoherences that confused rather than streamlined.

While the overall purpose of the production seemed a little confused, however, this didn’t take away from the power of the individual performances. Mackay was never less than compelling, particularly in the standout sequences with the play’s three women. The wooing of Anne was highly charged, Dorothea Myer-Bennett screaming defiance and spitting in his face before yielding as she dropped his sword. Mackay swooped around her, kissing her hard and allowing his hand to rest momentarily around her neck, constricting her while also sealing the marriage deal. He placed his ring on her finger, and she smiled through her tears, overwhelmed by the force of his passion.

Later, as he was interrupted on his march to war, he was destabilised by the towering rhetoric of his mother, played by the diminutive Nicky Goldie. Goldie distinguished herself throughout with a withering, acerbic tongue, but in this final sequence matched Richard and his drummers for volume, before finally kneeling meekly before him and causing him to descend from a scaffold to meet her at her own level. Her final curse was delivered slowly, deliberately and with shattering hate, cutting through Richards’s swagger. He recovered from this with a tour de force ‘wooing’ of Lisa Kay’s Elizabeth, played slowly and with space left for the full gravity of what he was asking to hit an appalled audience. As he offered to bury the memory of her sons in the womb of her daughter, there was an audible intake of breath and nervous giggle at his audacity. He kissed her suddenly, asking that it be passed on to her daughter, and she stumbled out in terror.

Richard’s interactions with the women acted as flash points of the danger of his charm and verve, dismissing them casually and turning back to the audience showing barely an effect. As a soldier he was upright and confident; as an actor, consummate. The comic highlight was his appearance chanting from the Bible on a scaffold while Paul Currier’s Buckingham breathed ‘defiance’ at him from below. The team of Richard and Buckingham were equal collaborators throughout, plotting in corners and stage managing the ‘attack’ on the Mayor.

For the most part, the text was allowed to breathe. A capable cast (Alan Coveney as Hastings, Rupert Holliday Evans as Clarence, Christopher Bianchi as Edward IV and Tyrrel) handled the setpiece speeches well, Evans evoking the crushing terror of his dream before the comic bickering of the two murderers undercut him. Jack Bannell did emphatic double duty as a conflicted, conscientious Brakenbury and a grandstanding, Games of Thrones-esque Richmond, dashing and decked out in finery. Cut entirely in heroic mode, there was perhaps a hint of a question in the final battle, as Richmond’s pike failed to get past Richards’s one-handed sword, and finally he was reliant on other soldiers running in from behind to finish him.

Directorial intervention was more apparent in the coronation scene, where the company froze while kneeling before Richard and broke away to stand in corners of the theatre while he spoke to them independently; and in an excellent ghost scene. Richard and Richmond curled up on mattresses at opposite ends of the stage, surrounded by hooded and helmeted actors. Richard then awoke, holding up a ‘healed’ left hand to show he was dreaming, and one by one the ‘soldiers’ unveiled and revealed themselves to be the ghosts (including Henry VI, interestingly, and the Duchess in place of the princes). Frustratingly, the balance was lost in the cutting of the lines to Richmond (why bring him on at all?!), but the sight of Buckingham, sat against a pillar and monotonously intoning his threat of destruction, was powerful.

Andrew Hilton’s production, despite my misgivings about the odd cuts, held its own against some excellent recent readings of Richard III, making a powerful claim for the theatrical verve of Shakespeare’s version in defiance of the re-readings no doubt being generated by the discoveries in Leicester. It’s a version that asserted strongly the play’s weight in rhetoric and individual debate, a story that drives through as relentlessly as Richard himself and depends on the ability of its victims to voice their opposition before being overturned.

Posted in Theatre review