November 7, 2013, by Peter Kirwan

Richard III @ Nottingham Playhouse

Nottingham Playhouse is advertising its new production of Richard III as the ‘first major staging’ since the discovery of the historical king’s body under that now-infamous car park in Leicester. While this seems a little ungenerous in its implications about Bristol’s Tobacco Factory, the joy of this production will be the chance to see the theatrical, if not the historical, Richard return to York when the production transfers to the Theatre Royal later this month. Yet despite the obvious resurgence of interest in the ‘real’ Richard, Loveday Ingram’s production betrayed only a partial interest in history, creating instead a version of the play that sat between periods and genres, reviving oft-neglected bits of the text and reclaiming Richard as a villain who enjoys his role immensely.

Performed in loose modern dress (the ceremonial uniforms of the royal family hearkening to a former imperial age, while the Duchess of York’s bizarrely futuristic dress jarred with the rest), the world of this Richard III drew on a range of influences, from the Playhouse’s recent production of The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui (also starring Ian Bartholomew in the lead) to the McKellen/Loncraine film. This was contemporary high society set against the trappings of a regal past: towering stone walls dominated the sides of the stage, light streaming through high-set circular portals. While the juxtaposition of time periods can often evoke timelessness, here there seemed to be a more combative tension between the formality of the court scenes with their golden throne, organised behaviours and Latin chants, and the supporting cast of hoodied murderers, muttering citizens and media displays. The tremendous closing scene of the first half saw Richard standing on a high balcony while his face was simultaneously projected onto the stone walls of the stage, the lights closing on his cackling face.

The tension became explicit in the approaches to kingship. Following the departure of the princes to the tower, both Richard and Milo Twomey’s Buckingham lounged casually on the throne, visually undermining the institution that they had already perverted. Even upon his coronation Richard laughed at the trappings of power, smirking as he sat and causing his robes to sweep behind him as he moved about his court. This was contrasted with the deeply pious Richmond (Nyasha Hatendi) who adopted a slow and respectful posture, kneeling properly when presented finally with the crown and always dressing himself carefully before meeting his men or addressing the crowds. The play’s final moments included the listing of the named dead, an unusual retention but one which demonstrated Richmond’s concern for propriety and hierarchy.

Bartholomew’s Richard was a breath of fresh air in his pure joy in his villainy. Dressed all in black and occuping a crumbling stone stairwell downstage of the proscenium, Bartholomew appealed to the audience, laughing at his accomplishments, showing off his clothes, confessing his worries. The separation of stage space made even clear his vice-like role as the presenter of his own actions – the Lady Anne scene in particular was expertly choreographed and immediately detached from, he stepping in and out of the scene to comment on his own performance. Increasingly he moved back behind the proscenium, losing himself following the coronation in the time and place of the story. The fascist implications of his costume were lightly emphasised through the use of military drums and, towards the end, the appearance of his soldiers as a combination of riot police and stormtrooper, combat-ready and moving in perfect unison as they arranged themselves for him. Yet even in these more serious scenes Bartholomew kept up a light touch, rallying the audience and seemingly maintaining some level of optimism.

Richard’s joking tendencies were particularly obvious in the central movement of the play, as he juggled the head of Hastings and stuck a knife into it, which he then had to put his boot to in order to remove. His foil was Sam Oatley’s entertaining Lord Mayor, who squeamishly accepted the head of Hastings as a gift, took bribes from Buckingham and parroted Buckingham and Richard’s performance for the people of London. It was in this section that he was most in control as a succession of victims – Charles Daish’s dignified Clarence, reduced by a recent accident to crutches, Paul Greenwood’s upstanding Hastings and Jim Creighton’s formal, socially awkward Rivers – were undone by him. There was little stylistic consistency to the deaths, which was a shame as the creative team instead seemed to aim for immediate effect over thematic coherence. Buckingham was ‘executed’ with a flash of lightning projected over his body before he was concealed by a wall closing; Clarence was drowned via video projection in close up; Hastings was simply taken offstage; Rivers and Grey were bundled through a wall that suddenly opened behind them. The consistency instead came from the ever-present and menacing figures of Catesby (Tim Chipping) and Ratcliffe (Sean Jackson), suited near-identically and standing ominously at the sides of the stage during most scenes, until left alone with Richard’s victims.

Richard’s ability to command troops was brought out effectively in relation to the women in his life. During the coronation he remarked matter of factly on the need to be rid of Anne while she sat beside him, she taking in a deep breath and nodding in understanding as she saw her own displacement. As he swept out of the scene he clicked his fingers and she took his hand, escorting him offstage with no apparent will of her own. Later, as Richard marched to war, a simple wave of his hand ensured that soldiers blocked off all possible exits for Siobhan McCarthy’s Queen Elizabeth, leaving her trapped and resistant. Richard’s fast-talking manner overwhelmed Anne in the wooing scene but was matched by Elizabeth, making this one of the more dynamic of vocal scenes and bringing out the rhetorical patterning. The introduction of other levels of discourse – the Scrivener’s poetical treatment of his own surreptitious task and the Cockney banter of the citizens who walked among the audience – made for a more aurally variedĀ Richard IIIĀ than is the case in more heavily cut productions.

But it was in the visuals that the production most keenly wanted to make its impact, following the Playhouse’s obsession with screens. For the battlefield dream sequence, an enormous white tent was unfurled from the ceiling, of which Richard and Richmond both took a side. The front of the tent was closed off, with the two barely visible through the sheet. As night fell, the ghosts were performed as projections, fading in and out of view, often seen in extreme close-up (eyes, mouths) or flipping suddenly to negatives of the faces. A rather overzealous use of the haze machine filled the auditorium with smoke, but the combination of atmosphere and distinct stylisation gave the scene a somewhat terrifying aspect. The excellent final battle culminated in a violent and fast clash of swords between Richmond and Richard that was evenly matched until Richmond’s supporters began swiping the air with their own swords. Richard responded remotely to the jabs and slashes, finally crumbling as Richmond plunged his own sword into the ground.

This lively and visceral Richard III found its strengths in the combination of elements. While not wedded to a particular conceptual model, the pace and variety on display made for an intense experience that evoked earned gasps when Richard announced that Anne was dead (dropping a sheet onto her empty chair) or when the Duchess slowly and deliberately cursed her son. As a standalone exploration of the play, it revived the idea that Richard can be fun, while alluding to the deeper concerns of authoritarian rule and the overturn of hierarchy that suffuse the play. Hopefully it’s a production that will continue to develop from strength to strength as the run continues.

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Separate to the production, an entirely practical complaint: the wooing of Anne scene was ruined by a bizarre front-of-house policy that saw large groups of latecomers being escorted to their seats near the front of the auditorium despite the availability of three empty rows right at the back of the stalls, causing noise and blocked views for several minutes. I’m sympathetic to latecomers, but it seems hugely disrespectful to both actors and audience to cause this level of disruption during a scene when unobtrusive options are available.

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