Review – Richard III, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 24th May 2019

Richard IIIIt was five years ago that we saw that disastrous production of Richard III at the Trafalgar Studios, starring Martin Freeman. I say disastrous; it was from the angle of our seats, which were the (relatively expensive) ones on stage “to get closer to the action” – but in fact our view of the action was so totally interrupted by the set that we may as well have been listening to a radio play. Never again will I fall for the “get a seat on the set” gimmick – it’s way too risky.

So nebulous was our memory of that show that Mrs Chrisparkle and I went into this production of Richard III thinking it was the first time I’d ever seen it – and, to all intents and purposes, it was. Its not a play with which I’m particularly familiar, but that’s definitely been my loss all these years. Richard III (the character) combines the ambition of Lady Macbeth with the ruthlessness of Iago and the bloodlust of Titus Andronicus. He’s the archetypal nasty piece of work but what a joy it is to watch him scheme and slime his way around a stage.

Although Richard III only ruled from 1483-85, he certainly left his mark on the annals of history. I’m no expert, but I believe he wasn’t quite as bad a chap as popular culture would have us believe. Shakespeare offers us the Princes in the Tower episode as just one incident in a life of murderous manipulation, and the play is, basically, an observation of the motives and modus operandi of a Machiavellian maniac. That’s what makes it so enjoyable! We cower at his evil but giggle at how he overshares his total lack of shame.

John Haidar’s production for Headlong, in association with the Bristol Old Vic, Alexandra Palace, Oxford Playhouse and the Royal and Derngate, has just finished its tour last week in Northampton, and – no buts about it – it was an absolute triumph. Plantagenet though the king may be, there is a distinct modern feel to the production, with smart suits and jackets/turtle necks combos the order of the day; Richard himself sports a set of callipers which I doubt would have been available at the end of the fifteenth century. Rather than get bogged down in its language – apparently, uncut, it’s the longest Shakespeare play apart from Hamlet – the production concentrated on vivid characterisation, striking visual and sound effects, and creative use of a row of mirror doors surrounding the back of the stage. Feydeau would have been fuming with envy. The cuts and re-arrangements of the play (don’t expect it to start with Now is the Winter of our Discontent) work incredibly well to give it a fast pace and a clear vision.

The cast was superb throughout, but I have to mention three particular performances that stood out for me. There’s a gloriously elegant performance by Stefan Adegbola as Buckingham; immaculately presented as the courtier supreme, politely attending on the whim of his masters – loyal of course, but always with an ear out for chances of preferment. When he realises his chance to impress Richard by assisting his plans – even giving him ideas for villainy – his star rises; but once reason starts to kick in, and he doesn’t instantly support Richard’s plan to kill the princes in the tower, his fate is sealed; and that self-assured elegance becomes confused and furious rebelliousness. It’s a magnificent performance.

I was also very impressed with the physical stage presence of Heledd Gwynn in her roles as the sensible Hastings – far too sensible to survive under Richard – and henchman Ratcliff, but also as the chillingly slick murderer sent to despatch Clarence. You almost believe she’s listening and responding to his pleas for mercy; then she shocks us by proving herself a most worthy murderer. There are also great performances from Leila Mimmack as the hopeless Anne and Eileen Nicholas as the Duchess of York, Richard’s mother who – let’s just say – is very, very disappointed in him.

But it’s Tom Mothersdale’s performance as Richard that absolutely takes your breath away. Contorting himself in the most awkward of poses to suggest Richard’s deformity, he doth bestride that stage like a Colossus. Revelling in a wonderful range of facial reactions from pretend horror to faux modesty, from amused self-realisation to blinding fury, you cannot take your eyes of him for one moment. His soliloquies are never just him talking to himself; he’s always talking to us, the audience, proudly letting us into his filthy world so that we detest him – but we love him too, resentfully, as he makes us complicit in his wretchedness.

Our emotional reactions to Richard’s situation are very complex; when the spirits of all his victims arrive to taunt him – each blowing silver corpse dust into his face so that he is lost in a sea of ghostly talc – we’re completely supportive of the spirits wanting to seek revenge but also strangely sorry for Richard’s plight. And when they appear and disappear at him from behind their magic mirrors, the fear this engenders is terrifyingly real and dark. It’s a memorable image that remains with you long after the show.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen Mrs C start a standing ovation before, but this was a no-brainer. A sensational production brought alive by some truly outstanding performances. It would be a true Shakespearean tragedy if this was never to be seen on a stage again – someone really should snap it up! Gripping, terrifying, and funny too. First-class!

Production photos by Marc Brenner

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