The words Richard III on a red background, interlinking with a white circle.

December 5, 2019, by Peter Kirwan

Richard III (Shakespeare’s Globe) @ The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

It may now have been a new play, with a new king (Sarah Amankwah’s Edward IV) and his courtiers standing for a family portrait, but the stage of Richard III bore all the scars of the Wars of the Roses. Edward and his wife Elizabeth (Nina Bowers) stood centrally in the family group, atop the mound of soil that still covered the stage, littered with cast-off clothing. The walls were still covered by hardboard bearing the scrawled graffiti of ‘York’, ‘Cade’ and ‘Henry VI’. And while the rest of the characters were in lounge suits or fashionable dresses, Richard himself (Sophie Russell) was still wearing the football shirt, shorts and kneepads in which he had killed Henry VI (Jonathan Broadbent) and secured the throne for his brother.

Richard wasn’t the only one still living in the past. Sean Holmes and Ilinca Radulian’s production traded heavily on its connections to the ensemble’s concurrent production of Henry VI, cutting some of the new characters (the young Richard of York was excised completely) in favour of reinforcing continuities, specifically in Steffan Donnelly’s superlative Margaret, still also wearing her football shirt and covered in blood, railing against the beneficiaries of the House of York’s victory. Richard and Margaret’s dominance of the first half of the production – Richard in the sheer volume of stage time, Margaret in her sudden irruption into the sequence – gave the production a spatial coherence lacking in Henry VI, with these two characters repeatedly centring themselves on the stage and forcing other characters into a half-circle around them. This was a production that emphasised that power lay with whoever could control the stage, and these were the characters that took that control.

As well as a clearer spatial structure, Richard III also struck a clearer tone of seriousness undermined repeatedly by overtly silly comedy. Russell’s Richard epitomised this balance. Richard was irreverent rather than seductive, fuelled by the confidence to take the central space on the stage and talk over anyone else. His opening soliloquy began as he moved among his brother’s court, perversely ignoring the almost-freeze frame to set out his stall. He thrice feinted leaving the stage before turning to continue his soliloquy, giving the speech an energy of seeming improvisation that also poked fun at audience expectation, reminding the audience of their limitations in their ability to predict his next move. Russell played Richard without any visible markers of disability, even holding up an apparently healthy arm when pointing to the curse levelled against him; Richard’s persona was rhetorically constructed and sustained by Russell’s compelling performance of confidence.

Donnelly’s Margaret embodied the more serious end of the spectrum. Margaret’s curses were a highlight of the production, she bursting onto the stage without warning and momentarily discomfiting everyone else on stage. She carried a large carrier bag, the grisly contents of which were not revealed until much later, and picked up handfuls of the stage soil as she cursed each of her foes – apart from Buckingham (Broadbent), whom she grabbed from behind with a long arm around his  neck. The ghosting of Broadbent’s previous role as Henry VI was fleetingly clear here as the larger, more powerful Margaret embraced her once-husband; here, though, Buckingham quickly cast her off. The rallying of the warring factions against Margaret, forcing her down into the soil and intimidating her, spoke to the perceived threat to the new order she still presented, her fierce war clothing a reminder of what they had all so recently lost.

And despite the often-comic tone, the seriousness of loss remained present. Clarence’s (John Lightbody) recounting of his dream was delivered soberly, the candles around him capturing the oppression of the Tower; Hastings (Colin Hurley) was given similar gravitas as he awaited his murder, and the appearance of the women before the tower (Matti Houghton’s Anne, Amankwah’s Duchess, and Bowers’s Elizabeth) gave the scene its full emotional weight, with both the Duchess and Elizabeth embracing the terrified Anne as Stanley (Philip Arditti) presented her with the crown and wished her luck. Amankwah, criminally underused in this production, made the most of her dignified appearances as the Duchess, rattling off her aborted blessing of Richard brusquely, and giving the most powerful moment of the whole performance with her final curse, forcing Richard to stand still before her and badly rattling him, leaving him in stunned silence as he left the stage. Even Tyrrell (Hurley), in his eloquent description of the murder of the princes, cut through the chaos to deliver a clean, sober lament. However much the production allowed Richard to lower the tone and make a mockery of things, the rest of the cast maintained a dignity that shone through regardless.

Richard had no truck with dignity, and his brazen undermining of decorum and civility was both entertaining and shocking. In one of the finest recurring jokes, Richard turned up in person for everyone’s deaths. The murder of Clarence saw the two murderers (Arditti and Donnelly) bickering and ad-libbing amongst themselves, one saying that his conscience would go away if he counted to twenty (this murderer was killed by the first at the end of the scene). As the First Murderer went to kill Clarence by stabbing him repeatedly with a pair of scissors, Richard entered and crooned Perry Como’s ‘For The Good Times’ accompanied by the band, adding a macabre comedy as Clarence thrashed to the music and pleaded for help. Thereafter, Richard returned for the murders of Rivers (Leaphia Darko) and Grey (Houghton), and of Hastings, changing up his performance of the song with each appearance – for Hastings, he appeared in Elvis wig. Both of these murders were carried out by Ratcliffe (Lightbody), a bespectacled and suited man, who diligently set up a workers’ industrial lantern first to bathe his victims in cold light before carrying out the grisly deed. Stanley was subjected to the same treatment when Richard later accused him of supporting Richmond; Ratcliffe was gutted when Stanley won a reprieve.

Richard’s extra-diegetic control of the music, and his ability to crash the murders for which he wasn’t present, was used to great effect in his relationship with Buckingham too. Buckingham was a quiet, bookish type who Richard paid little attention to, until Buckingham’s suggestion to Richard that he could do away with Rivers and Grey. Richard was genuinely surprised by the suggestion, saying ‘My other self!’ as if having suddenly discovered true love. Sure enough, the band struck up a love theme and the candles lowered (Buckingham looked up in confusion), and Richard spun Buckingham into a dance. There was a repetition of this again later; and, at the start of the second half – for which Grace Smart’s set resumed its clean marbled appearance from the start of Henry VI – Richard lounged on the red chaise-longue and called for Buckingham, who appeared half-undressed and dishevelled, to be scooped into Richard’s arms and then dumped unceremoniously on the floor. Buckingham’s intimate relationship with Richard led him to assume he could insist on his reward, and Richard’s barked defiance into his face was chilling. Then later, when Ratcliffe was setting up for Buckingham’s execution, Richard again entered – instead of singing this time, however, he took Buckingham in his arms and started dancing with him; then, brutally, bit into his neck and tore out his throat (an echo of his manner of killing Broadbent’s Henry VI), leaving Buckingham gurgling on the floor. Ratcliffe’s bathetic ‘You alright?’ as the two left the body was both laugh-out-loud funny and shockingly callous.

Richard’s protean ability to be whatever he needed to be served him well throughout, whether slipping a can of drink to Clarence as his brother was taken to prison, kneeling in the mud before Lady Anne, or putting on a white gown and washing the feet of the Lord Mayor (Hurley) in apparent humility. The scene with Anne was confrontational, with Anne spitting directly in his face and going so far as to hold a plastic bag tightly around Richard’s head before relenting. There was a huge whoop and cheer from the audience as Richard emerged as King after the interval wearing a sparkly white suit, and Richard revelled in the cheering. But Richard’s love of spectacle and playacting was also set up as his downfall, especially when contrasted with Richmond (Donnelly). Wearing jeans, cagoule and a lilting Welsh accent, Richmond was entirely undemonstrative, a man of the people emerging from the pit, quiet and kind in his dealings with his underlings. Richard’s brash, showy persona was also combustible; Richmond’s calmness was what the realm needed.

The final sequence saw Richard directing Ratcliffe and Catesby (Houghton) to set up his couch onstage before lying down for the night. Richard had earlier caused plastic sheeting to be laid out over the stage and rolled out across the tiring house, and from behind the sheeting, backlit by Ratcliffe’s electric light, the Ghosts of his victims emerged, appearing in enormous shadow first before coming and laying their hands heavily on Richard, weighing him down collectively as they visited their curses upon him (Richmond watched in awe from the side). Setting up for the battle, Richard was joined by seven figures clad in hazmat suits, who stood around him and waved flags in token of his army. But then those figures put down their flags and one – Ratcliffe – moved to the front of the stage and set up the electric light once more. Now the Perry Como song came from the gallery, this time set to the instrumental backing of Nine Inch Nails’ ‘Hurt’, as the hooded figures stabbed Richard and then wrapped him in plastic sheeting, leaving him bundled on the stage.

The sight of Richard’s own army turning on him had a symbolic value that transcended the simplicity of a one-on-one duel with Richmond, both keeping Richmond’s own hands clean and suggesting Richard’s own destructive tendencies finally being revisited upon him with all poetic justice. The stage was thus cleared for Richmond to enter alone and deliver his final speech, before planting a sapling tree in the centre of the Tudor Rose that decorated the stage. The simple image, especially the careful padding down of the soil that had earlier made a mess of the whole stage and everyone who walked upon it, showed order being reimposed upon a kingdom once in disarray, buying into the hope that Richmond offered. It was a mature ending to a pleasingly chaotic Richard III, bringing the sequence to a fitting close.

Posted in Theatre review