October 4, 2015, by Peter Kirwan

Richard III @ The Quarry Theatre, West Yorkshire Playhouse

Given the spate of stand-alone Richard IIIs since the titular king’s corpse was exhumed in 2012, it’s a brave production that emphasises the wider cycle of otherwise unseen events. Mark Rosenblatt’s bold and spectacular production for West Yorkshire Playhouse began with a group of industrial cleaners scrubbing a white stage clean of the blood left behind from the Wars of the Roses, and asked a lot of its audience in retaining the many references back to the Henry VI plays that are often cut in non-cyclical productions. Yet a uniformly strong company and a clear aesthetic worked to clarify the history and present a Richard III that stood on its own terms yet also felt like the culmination to a much larger story.

Conor Murphy’s set was the production’s primary asset. Three concentric circles of girders hung high above the stage, functioning as lighting rigs which created enclosed patterns on the stage floor, but also descending from the ceiling to encircle prisoners, hover as surgical lamps, or turn elliptically to represented the tilted crowns at stake during the play’s final act. Screens unfurled from one of the rigs to demarcate the space of Edward’s sickbed and Richard’s tent. While a few chairs, a bed and an ornate throne were also brought on for specific scenes, the emphasis was on the bareness of this England and the empty space between the heavens above and the world of the wars, rendering all of the players small against a vast backdrop. The stage was repeatedly cleaned and cleared, the detritus of war making way for the clinical environment of council chambers and war rooms – the discussion of when Edward V should be crowned saw the assembled nobles sitting in a vast circle around the edges of the stage, isolated from one another and speaking into microphones as if at the UN. Little intimacy was possible in a world where individuals were effectively quarantined from one another.

The production seemed indebted to Propeller’s grand guignol slaughterhouse take in the chorus of wellington-wearing wet-works figures who carried out Richard’s dirty work and cleaned up after the (sporadically graphic but never comic) violence; but also to Nottingham Playhouse/York Theatre Royal’s production with its loose period setting and Hitler-evoking Richard. Reece Dinsdale had a wide toothbrush moustache and a barking, phlegmatic delivery, just enough unlike the Fuhrer to avoid a consistent allegory but continually evoking a particular kind of tyranny driven by an emasculated personal fury. Bakelite phones, furs with elegant dresses, military uniforms and crackling radios further evoked the war, while hidden cassette tapes for spying on Hastings, modern microphones and day-glo pink hair for one of the murderers all destabilised the period setting, the deliberate inconsistency resisting political or historical specificity.

This was a strongly ensemble-led production, with most actors doubling multiple roles. One consequence of the approach was that Richard himself felt somewhat diminished in importance. Hobbling on a left shoe with raised heel and a hand tucked permanently inside his jacket, Dinsdale was a wiry and energetic Richard nonetheless, speaking quickly and manoeuvring himself with agility around the clusters of nobles. This dynamism was key to his success – the wooing scene, for instance, was played at a fast lick leaving the tiny Anne (Rose Wardlaw) stunned and vulnerable. Dinsdale largely avoided the role’s humour except in a gloriously hammy appearance between two monks in order to be publicly convinced to take on the monarchy; otherwise, his orders came as ruthless or matter-of-fact, dynamism translating into efficiency for the sake of progress.

Playing a relatively full text also gave Richard less opportunity to stand out, which was all to the production’s benefit. Playing the Margaret scenes in full was a particularly bold choice, yet Jane Bertish’s performance repaid their inclusion. Dressed in moth-eaten clothes and carrying a suitcase, she evoked for me a Mother Courage figure, wandering aimlessly in the aftermath of war. Speaking slowly in direct contrast to Richard, her finger pointing and tired pronouncements weighed heavily on the play, damning the characters and casting a gloom over the stage. The recurrent presence of Henry VI’s coffin on the stage, and the cast’s clear delivery of the backstory concerning the murders of Rutland and of Margaret’s son (descriptions played out in full in the scenes featuring the several queens) brought to this play the baggage of the past and fleshed out characters such as Rivers and Grey who lose so much when their past allegiances are glossed over. But Margaret went further in insisting on severity in the production’s whole tone, slowing events down to her pace and enforcing reflection amid the breakneck events elsewhere.

Other scenes where the action was allowed to slow down a little enabled moments of deeper feeling. Clarence’s dream was described by Dale Rapley while lying on a bed environed by one of the descended lighting rigs, while a psychologist sat at the far edge of the stage speaking into a microphone, taking notes on his description. The dream was described at great length in fear and anger, Rapley terrifying as he captured every excruciating second of his imagined drowning. David Rubin, playing the ailing King Edward, was another strong speaker, his voice resounding about the stage and silencing the bickering of the nobles. Richard’s own haste around his more stable, dignified brothers spoke volumes about the differences which he was intent on wiping out in his own rise to power.

There wasn’t a weak link in the cast, in fact. Ben Addis stood out in an immaculately tailored suit as Buckingham, Blair-like in his easy spin, friendly smile and self-debasement to superiors. He stage managed the public scene of convincing Richard to take the throne, performing disappointment in his would-be king and shaking the hands of each alderman, concentrating on every individual connection necessary to advance his own aims. Dyfrig Morris doubled as an efficient bureaucrat as Hastings, confident in his knowledge of law and process until scuppered by Richard; and as a somewhat effete Tyrell, slightly disgusted by the necessary acts of the murderers he had employed. And Dorothea Myer-Bennett was magnificent as Elizabeth, shifting from decorum and dignity to fear as her relatives were targeted, to despair but dignity again as she resisted Richard’s attempts to get her daughter’s hand. Each of these enemies of Richard established strong personalities that seemed on the surface able to resist Richard on equal terms, yet which were outmanoeuvred rather than outmatched by a man simply able to move more quickly than them.

The production’s interest in women and children also led to a great spin on the two princes, played (thankfully!) by adult actors rather than actual children, allowing for more independent performances. Romayne Andrews was an upright but somewhat scared Edward, but Rose Wardlaw (again) was particularly fascinating as Richard of York, dressed in a school uniform and cap that must have deliberately been trying to evoke Wee Jimmy Krankie. Wardlaw’s York was deeply suspicious of his uncle and established himself as a genuine threat by borrowing Richard’s dagger and then lunging at him – in apparent play – with it, and then later seemingly trying to strangle Richard as he leapt on his back, again in apparent play. York’s anger and frustration as he was pulled off provided direct motivation for Richard’s fear of his nephews, giving the princes more oomph than mere victims.

More interesting were the decisions taken to individualise some of the minor characters. Jessica Murrain played Catesby as an executive secretary in skirt suit and heels, co-ordinating Richard’s schedule and managing access to him once crowned. Dale Rapley’s Ratcliffe, by contrast, was an eyepatch-wearing soldier in dark blue fatigues, towering over the other actors and speaking in a deep rasp only to pronounce sentence. The choices here emphasised Richard’s canny ability to surround himself with allies of different qualities, managing both the administrative and the violent imperatives of his plans. These were the two who stuck by him to the end. Ratcliffe in particular was contrasted to Stanley, the only successful opponent to Richard, played by David Rubin as a strait-laced military officer who saluted Richard whenever he entered the stage. Stanley’s importance to the conflict was exaggerated in the final reckoning as Rubin circled the stage negotiating with Richmond on the phone, his words voicing the main opposition. For interestingly, Richmond was cut (although certain of his lines were heard as voice-over via radio broadcasts or non-diegetically). The focus was strongly on Richard’s own experience and the collapse of his own camp, but Rosenblatt had no apparent interest in what was to be set up after his fall.

This led to a climax that was both effective and somewhat disappointing. The first section was brilliant, as Richard went to sleep in his onstage tent. Henry VI’s coffin was wheeled in with several balloons attached to it. One by one the ghosts entered, took a balloon and a glass of fizz, and walked forward to a microphone where they delivered the ‘despair and die’ speeches in the monotone of half-hearted retirement tributes, or an enforced eulogy. The ghosts gathered with their balloons and drinks, not interacting with one another but moving slowly as if at the world’s glummest party, while Richard awoke and panicked about his fate. Buckingham turned Henry’s coffin to reveal Richard’s name painted on the other side, at which Richard started back. The scene was deeply effective, and Margaret’s presence introducing Henry’s body continued the connections to the earlier plays.

Yet the battle itself, lacking a visible antagonist owing to Richmond’s non-presence, dipped jarringly into something more devised. Richard jumped onto a wheeled bed that stood for his horse which the rest of the ensemble pushed about the stage. The ‘horse’ bucked and threw him off, and then the faceless Chorus threw cords around Richard, tying him down and driving him to the ground. The stage blacked out, and then the lights came back up on a reprise of the opening scene. Richard’s coffin was pushed into a white space and Stanley entered to pick up and take away the crown, while the attendants played light jazz, mopped up blood and painted ‘III’ next to Richard’s name on the coffin. This brief image detracted from Richard’s actual demise, ending the play bizarrely abruptly and leaving the audience unsure whether or not to applaud. It’s a shame, as this was one of the most inventive, fast-paced and enjoyable Richard IIIs I’ve seen, filled with fine performances and a convincing throughline of Richard’s outpacing of everyone else until those he had overtaken finally caught up with him.

Posted in Theatre review