Richard III**** (Upstairs at the Gatehouse, 7 February, 2014)

Posted: February 9, 2014 in Theatre

richard-iii-photo-by-adam-triggThis review was originally written for The Public Review:

Following a surprise appearance in a Leicester car park, our most reviled monarch can now be found some way down the A1, taking up residence in a Highgate pub. Zoe Ford’s lean, all-action, very modern production of Richard III takes place on a blackened set, with just a golden throne as its centrepiece. The performance begins with Richard witnessing the ascent to the throne of his brother King Edward IV, drafting on the final scene from another play – Henry VI pt 3 – and thereby delaying this play’s famous opening speech by five minutes. This break with tradition is useful in adding historical context to a plot that can be confusing and in introducing Richard as not just a murdering psychopath, rather a man who is following a family tradition. He does no more than what his predecessors have done by scheming and killing to claim his crown, a prize that will ultimately mean less to him than a horse. David McLaughlin’s agile and athletic Richard shows no physical deformities (even an unbending leg seems to repair itself miraculously after a couple of scenes) and his powerful performance is all the more admirable for that. This is not the pantomime villain that the character can become when overacted; here is a man born the runt of a litter, dogged by feelings of inferiority, yet locked into lifelong competition with his brothers. On his way to the throne, he is cold and calculating and it is only when his ambition and insecurity are juiced up by real power that signs of insanity appear. As demented rage conflicts with rare remorse before his final battle, his inner turmoil is shown through a very clever illusion in which he appears to be throttling himself. There is little regality in this court. The men, dressed in black leather, look like a gang of Hell’s Angels who have parked their bikes outside and dropped in for a pint. The widows and mothers are earthy women, powerless behind the throne, wailing for the losses of their loved ones. Particularly strong is Tabitha Becker-Kahn’s flame-haired Duchess of York (modern reference coincidental?), who appears rather like the Queen of Hearts. The production’s chief weaknesses are those inherent in the play itself – its repetitiveness and its lacks of subtlety and variations in tone. Correspondingly the high points come when Shakespeare’s text is sidelined; several brutal murders are depicted vividly, to the sound only of music; Richard’s wordless seduction of his Queen is almost erotic until it turns into yet another slaughter; and the child Prince Edward romps around in a playful ballet with his executioner, before meeting his end. These and other scenes are enacted with the accompaniment of well-chosen rock tracks which fit well with the narrative and the production design. With just 10 actors playing all the roles, this is scaled-down Shakespeare at its best, exemplified when the Battle of Bosworth Field is reduced to a thrilling one-on-one street brawl between the King and the Earl of Richmond. This “battle” is clear proof of the theory that less can be more and the same must be said of the entire production.

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photo: Adam Trigg

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