May 27, 2017, by Peter Kirwan

Richard III (Northern Broadsides) @ Hull Truck

On Tuesday and Wednesday, I was speaking at a conference in Newcastle on ‘Offensive Shakespeare’, the aim of the event being to theorise ‘offence’ in relation to Shakespeare, whether attempts by practitioners to use Shakespeare to offend; offended reactions to Shakespearean texts and productions; or attempts to deconstruct the icon of Shakespeare him/itself. The conference took place in the shadow of Monday’s atrocities in Manchester, and given that many of the papers dealt with extremism, international relations and volatile political situations, there was a good deal of sobering discussion about our collective responsibilities as scholars and critics when approaching Shakespeare at times when emotions are high.

I mention this because it’s been on my mind all week, and because it inflected my response to Northern Broadsides’ Richard III on its final day of performance. When Tyrrell (Jim English) hung a pair of abandoned schoolboys’ caps on a ladder at stage left and pronounced the deed he had just done ‘the most arch deed of piteous massacre / That ever yet this land was guilty of’, an audible gasp arose from the packed house. And when Mat Fraser’s Richard turned to Ruth Alexander-Rubin’s Queen Elizabeth in the middle of her grief and told her ‘Harp not on that string, madam, that is past’, more cries echoed around the auditorium. The combination of affective visual imagery and a powerful, fast-paced exchange between Fraser and Alexander-Rubin brought out the pathos inherent in this situation regardless of broader context, but after a week walking past police officers wielding machine guns at every major station, and the ongoing attempts to adequately articulate and respond to the slaughter of children, my heart broke.

That Richard III carries affective power is hardly surprising, but the announcement of the children’s deaths and the mourning this occasioned offered welcome moments of reflection and emotional space in the middle of an often shouty production that barrelled through the play at top speed. The casting of two adult actors (the extremely tall Jim English as Edward V and the little person Deano Whatton as the young Duke of York, their extreme disparity in height lending an edge to Whatton mocking Richard for patronising him about his growth) gave the princes some character, as well as eerily ghosting the young victims with the memory of the earlier murderers of Clarence; and when the Duke of York left the stage for the last time, he petulantly stamped on his uncle’s foot. The production then slowed down in the second half to give ample space to acknowledge and mourn the loss, particularly in the moving accounts of Elizabeth and Christine Cox’s dignified Duchess of York, the two women breaking down in front of the Tower, and Elizabeth then holding her own in a fast, angry and emotional exchange with Richard about her remaining daughter.

As always, Richard III was built around its lead performer. Northern Broadsides has form with enabling excellent actors into their first major Shakespearean roles (Lenny Henry in Othello being the obvious example), and Fraser offered a refreshingly honest, and angry, Richard. In his opening soliloquy, delivered as a matter of fact to the audience, he began with his arms folded inside his jacket and then displayed them to the audience on ‘I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks’. The casting of an actor with a real rather than feigned disability as Richard III is important not simply as a political act of representation (though it is undoubtedly that), but for placing emphasis on the actor’s evocation of experience rather than their technically skilful mimicry of a body that is not their own. Fraser’s self-exposure (including going fully topless when confronting Hastings) was part and parcel of the character’s blunt sincerity. He didn’t coddle or smarm those around him, and his emotions were often surprisingly unguarded (including his open frustration with Elizabeth in the aforementioned wooing-by-proxy scene), but his fast-thinking, no-nonsense approach simply left others with little choice but to go along with him.

While Barrie Rutter’s management of the space was (for the first three quarters of the show, at least) immensely dull, with far too many scenes involving characters sitting on benches facing one another, Fraser’s occupation of the space allowed for several moments of interest. The length of his arms required him to be in much closer proximity to those he was touching than other Richards, and when wooing Anne this made for some horribly uncomfortable moments; when she initially withdrew from him as he asked her to stab him, he shuffled his whole body along the floor to get closer to her again; and when embracing her from behind after she acquiesced to his advances, it was her neck that his arms encircled. But unlike, say, Ian McKellen’s Richard, whose disability was hidden behind several defensive layers and passing strategies, this Richard’s open ownership of his own body also meant that he didn’t worry about decorum. He kicked Henry VI’s stretcher away from him and wiped his hands on the dead king’s shroud; he kept his distance from the nephews he found distasteful; he lounged on his throne and swaggered through his court. While he sometimes smiled, the pleasure he took in his long con was a cruel satisfaction rather than anything approaching joy. Fraser was particularly effective when playing the tyrant; in one beautifully timed moment, he waited for Stanley to almost leave the stage in apparent acceptance of his pledge of trust, before pronouncing that he must leave his son behind. Jason Furnival’s Stanley, to his credit, took only a second while turning around to get his game face on.

Fraser’s performance, especially in the second half, was a necessary and welcome focal point in a production that took a long time to get going, due in part to an uneven ensemble and in part to the frustratingly static direction. Too often actors simply went to their marks and remained there, or were crowded onto tiny benches to perform confrontations. When Margaret (Flo Wilson) emerged for her first appearance to snark at the feuding families, the other actors simply paused and waited while she gave her asides. Apart from the lovely visual image of the scrivener (Max Gallagher) sat alone onstage bathed in a spotlight for his short scene, and a beautifully delivered description of Clarence’s dream by Richard Standing, the first half was paint-by-numbers, almost literally in the differently coloured bright scarfs worn by all of Richard’s future victims, dutifully removed and hung up on stage left (with the Princes’ caps) as they were crossed off.

As the play got to Richard’s ascendancy, however, it suddenly shifted up a gear. The excellent Ratcliffe (Matthew Booth) and Catesby (Luke Adamson) became more prominent, enabling and supporting Richard with the ruthless efficiency that made his brief time in power terrifying. The closing scene of the first half finally made use of the large ensemble, bringing on a large crowd to appeal to Richard, revealed at the top of a large staircase, prayerbook in hand. Matt Connor was infused with the charismatic energy that Richard lacked, his Buckingham the smiling, highly mobile PR man, and he kept the crowds moving in this scene, stage managing Richard’s descent to crowd level and reluctant acceptance of the crown with consummate ease. He shared a knowing smile as he escorted the happy Londoners off the stage, a smile returned by Richard before he tore the pages out of his Bible and threw them up in the air with a shout of disdain, a striking image to end on (if unconnected to anything else in the production).

With a tatty carpet and rickety throne brought out, Richard’s court was poor in everything apart from his glistening crown, but he revelled in the show of power. He stood directly behind Anne and announced her coming death in her hearing, she acknowledging it with a turn of her head. He presided over his men drumming on the floor with clogs and staffs, the point at which Conrad Nelson’s thunderous percussion score kicked in to soundtrack Richard’s reign. The cacophony of the drums punctuated Richard’s gestures and aligned the bodies of the clog-wearing actors, who stepped in time to the beat for much of the play’s second half.

And then, as the final battle approached, something glorious happened. The steel shutters that acted as a stark backdrop to the action were moved to one side, and the actual scenic dock of the theatre was rolled up. At this matinee performance, sunlight – real sunlight – streamed in, revealing a huge troupe of drummers in silhouette as Richard’s approaching army, while smoke billowed across the stage. I have no idea how this played at evening performances, but the sudden intrusion of noise, bodies and natural light overwhelmed the stage on this beautiful day, announcing a near-flawless end-game that was so wonderfully clear and energising, I couldn’t help wondering where this flair had been for the first four acts. The Ghosts capitalised on the earlier visual reminders of the deaths by crossing the stage to the ladder, picking up the props that had signalled them earlier, and speaking in turn to Richard and Richmond, while the rest of the company sat in boiler suits around drums and shoes.

The final battle was scored to the stamping of clogged feet, the actors marching on the spot in time to the deafening drums that were arranged around the auditorium. Richard and Ben Wright’s Richmond stood atop porters’ trolleys to deliver their speeches, the drums following their cadences and growing constantly in volume, the drums and stamping taking the place of representations of fighting – made most clear as Richard himself took a pair of sticks and battered out two terrific solos on his own snare, the aural evocation of his heroic prowess, before Richmond entered with a six foot pole and smashed Richard down. With Richard lying dead, Richmond gave his closing speeches; but the drums only gradually quietened, the various musicians laying down their sticks at separate times and the clog-dancers decelerating to the gentlest of sways, until finally the last drummer lifted his sticks and the company sang a chorus of Te Deum. It’s the first time I can recall diminuendo being used in a production (as opposed to the over-used crescendo, climax and sudden halt), and the slow, peaceful return to silence felt like a conclusion to a whole history cycle, not just a single production.

Richard III celebrated Northern Broadsides’ 25th anniversary (it was the company’s first production) and Hull’s year as Capital of Culture, and a celebration it was. In foregrounding Richard’s body, in opening its loading bay doors to admit the air of the city, and in choreographing a truly sublime final sequence, the company elevated an uneven production into something quite special.

Posted in Theatre review