This review was originally written for The Public Reviews – http://www.thepublicreviews.com
“Good friend for Jesu’s sake forbear, To dig the dust enclosed here. Blest be the man that spares these stones, And curst be he that moves my bones”. So pleads William Shakespeare in the epitaph that appears on his own tombstone, but the man upon whom he based one of his most famous plays has not been allowed to lie undisturbed. The skeleton of King Richard III was found recently after spending many winters of discontent beneath what is now a car park in Leicester and then moved to a more dignified place, suitable for a monarch, even one so widely reviled. Sharon Jennings’ play takes a somewhat quirky look at the discovery of the bones and the arguments as to whether or not, thanks to the work of our greatest playwright, history has been very unfair to this King. Perhaps Shakespeare was doing no more than spreading propaganda in support of Tudor monarchs, who would have seen it as in their interests to discredit the House that they had displaced. Maybe, rather than being the ruthless King that killed to claim the throne and killed more to keep it, Richard was a benevolent monarch who loved his wife and built churches. We are told that there is not a shred of evidence to link Richard to the murders of the two young princes in the Tower, the most heinous of the crimes with which he is associated, and plenty of evidence to suggest that he was intrinsically a good man reigning in very bad times. The play takes the form of a discussion at Leicester Council offices between Len (Toby Osmond), a Council official, Barbara (Kathy Trevelyan), a representative of the Ricardian Society which defends Richard’s reputation, and Ambrose (Steve Blacker), a history professor at Leicester University. Each has an eye to financial gain from the discovery of the skeleton, considering whether their interests could be best served by Richard being portrayed as a hero or a villain. They are joined by the ghost of Richard himself (John Gregor), who, although not seen or heard by the trio, creates a very nasty smell that is blamed on the drains. Possibly being aware that this discussion could be very dry and that Barbara and Ambrose would, inevitably, be dull characters, Jennings writes some sections in rhyming verse and introduces elements of comedy, mainly through Len, who is portrayed as bumbling and badly educated. However, this is where the play is at its weakest, with many of the jokes falling flat and Len coming across as too much of a buffoon even to typify a local government official. Richard’s ghost, dressed in a long, white robe, also appears at first as a comic figure, showing mock indignation at insulting references made to him and throwing in asides about having protested his misrepresentation directly to Shakespeare and, more recently, to Laurence Olivier. Rather than resorting to poor comedy, a better way to make this play livelier might have been to shorten it and thereby give it more punch. At two hours (including interval), it needs cutting by at least a third. The final section is easily the strongest. Here Jennings expounds the theory that the truth about Richard lies somewhere between the views of his supporters and those represented in Shakespeare’s play. She uses the character of Richard’s ghost, no longer a comic figure, to articulate her theory, defend his reputation and admit to his failings. Gregor’s strong, authoritative voice and demeanour give gravitas and credence to her words. It takes some time getting there, journeying through flat debate and weak comedy, but, in the end, there is worthwhile drama. RIP Richard.
Performance date: 28 May 2014