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Love & Madness Ensemble

Richard III

Photo by Luke Varley

 

by William Shakespeare

 

Directed by Ben Kidd

 

Riverside Studios

 

26 Jan – 21 Mar 2010


 

 

 

 

A review by Jonathan Brown for EXTRA! EXTRA!

The year is 1483. Or is it?

“Now is the winter of our discontent”, begins Richard’s jealous journey to follow his deceased father onto England’s throne, despite being in a queue behind brothers and nephews aplenty. Richard’s “deformed unfinish’d” form belies no inner beauty, but reflects his ambition to remove all opponents.

As brother George is carted off to The Tower for a plot (conceived by Richard) against brother Edward, Edward inadvertently paves the way for Richard’s accession.  Richard next moves onto Anne Neville, to win her in marriage, despite her awareness of his killing of her husband and father-in-law. Will she, won’t she? Now Henry IV’s widow Margaret returns to defy her banishment and denounce Richard, but her warnings are ignored. Aha, you think. Even if King Edward’s health deserts him, his child, the young Edward V, will also stand in Richard’s way, so there! But Richard’s got his eye on the main chance, persuades the young Princes (there’s two!), to take refuge at The Tower and then with complotter Buckingham spreads rumours of their illegitimacy. When Hastings is silly enough to question the direction of the proceedings, his fate is inevitable. Now, Richard tests Buckingham’s loyalty, demanding he see to the death of the young princes. How will Buckingham respond? I hear you ask. How will it end?

Well, so much for a brief synopsis, but it’s such a fab plot (in all the senses of the word) that you’ll bemoan neither the lengthy intro nor the time on your bottom at Riverside’s Studio 3.

So how to describe the production?

What makes murder chilling is perhaps not the cold act itself, grim and desperate though each kill must be, but the drudgery of the repeated act for those whose only hold on power is secured with the dull regularity of their need, either to secure loyalty, to remove opponents, or those whose existence irks the remnants of their conscience.

So it is with Richard, 3rd son of Edward IV.

Tonight, I saw a whole audience carried along on a tide of… joy, not of the existence of men like Richard, but of the power of a performance to make the drab little brute (Richard that is, not W.S.) and his works all at once intriguing, amusing, despicable, vulgar and finally undeniably dull. Not dull, I hasten to add, in the playing of him (Carl Prekopp was quite masterly) but in the man himself - the total dullness of his tyranny, his inability to colour it with love, “coward conscience” or doubt.

True, I was initially nervous, with setting and costume resembling New Labour Central Office or Obama’s back rooms. Ties, suits and high heels don’t make for free and easy emotional release, and sure enough some of the early scenes felt understated. First, as George of Clarence tells of his own conveyance to the Tower with an almost “ho-hum, looks like another parking ticket for me” nonchalance, I wondered… will the stakes get higher?

The “wooing” of Lady Anne could likewise do with more work, to find new ways for Sadie Frost to explore Anne’s incredulousness, grief and rage at being propositioned by the man who’s admitted to killing her husband and father-in-law.
 
Yes to allow the emotional range of an actor off the leash early in the play may be too early. But for Anne, it’s her one chance to display her ire, and though you’re tottering about in stilettos, some of us silently urged her to remove the bloody shoes and stab him with them.

But it was only the second scene and only the third night of the run. Rest assured, the night is young, as is Richard’s foul plotting, and, the company’s relationship with the production in performance.

Slowly, surely, as a murderer learning his trade “on the job”, the play, and the playing of it, gains confidence, as does the emotional life and its portrayal. The play itself is the only fragile thing around not to be butchered, as we see Richard (played with utter viciousness, and twisted commitment combined with snappy comic timing and brutally maintained self contortion) begin to wield his growing guile with ever more confidence. Likewise, each of remaining characters warms to their oft dubious roles either in service to Richard, or in limp opposition.

His foul conspiracies are difficult to oppose simply because they are… conspiracies. Secret machinations concocted in corridors behind smarmy smiles, smart suits and professional presentation. It’s hard to be a fan of Shakespeare without being a conspiracy theorist, and I had no doubt of the current issues hinted at within the production. When Richard and Buckingham assure Sir Edmund of Hasting’s “guilt”, despite their “inability” to let him see the evidence, whilst proposing to suspect any who doubt their integrity, a chilling view of current witch-hunt-esque anti-terror measures plays out before one’s eyes.
 
And outwardly, the spin - the increasingly brilliant performance by the three main plotters to present their man, Richard, as a noble and pious, religious man.... again the relevance. First Catesby: A performance from Sarah Bedi, sustained, subtle, nuanced, and unassuming, even gently benevolent, whilst as sinister as any co-plotter for being played by a sweet–faced smiling woman. Wiffs of Condelisa-like Rice-flavoured bullshit filled the air. Buckingham’s command of language, oratory and spin was as breathtaking, as the delivery of it by Simon Yadoo. I was almost cheering “Richard for the King!” myself, so rousing was Buckingham’s praise of the distorted dog Richard, who near drooled at the thought of the crown. And finally Richard, whose ability, to weave and woo to the faces of his victims and puppets, is only surpassed by that to descend to ever greater depths of reptilian villainy. As a team, this Trio of Spin are unbeatable sweeping all before them, carrying them on a wave of… believability. The thing is, to those not privy to the backroom secrecy, the spin starts to get a grip and soon many are taken in. (More contemporary relevance.) Still more, by the company. Not long into the production, the audience is one-by-one won over to, one-by-one, each of the characters.

Despite being aware, of the “fraud”, the make-believe world that is the play, of the fraud that is Richard, and the fraud that is today’s power brokers, then like the voters of today, and the nervous nobles and dis-enfranchised masses of Richard’s England, the audience really start to “buy in”. The players were really going at it, knew their parts well and neither over nor underplayed them. With the audience and players now moving in an upward spiral of mutual response, the actors began to release their doves and open up the play for us wonderfully, unfolding powerful scene after memorable scene, with strong imagery and excellent acting riding upon the inexorable charge of Shakespeare’s writing.

As mentioned, the only dull aspect becomes the repetition of the act of murder and betrayal, like the dull black office-garb commute to dream-killing work in London, or the large-scale drudge of the “processing” in the death camps. This image, of the industrialisation of death seems fortified by the use of glaring white floodlight-like lights, (Lighting Designer?) for me implying some extermination camp-level of disregard for humanity.  The lighting sometimes became more intimate, but often only during yet another man’s murder – as in the intimacy between the assassin (Tyrell) and the victim. Again, the perfect repetition. As each time, we see Tyrell quietly, sadly, listen to the protestations of his intended, and squat down to his black shoulder bag, slowly pull out the tools of his trade. We know what is to come. The menace deepens, each time.

Many wonderful images linger: The appearance of the Young Princes… A wonderful use of a well-placed Coke cup, leaving me waiting for an impetuous “Yeah, Whatever”... Richard’s sudden explosive, impetuous rage when doubted or crossed....The hilarity of a man, pretending to “wish not to be King”, being “persuaded” by the stirring and lightning-fast spin of Buckingham.

During the interval, the audience were clearly happy, exultant even. We were ready for more.

Now the auditorium was cold, reflecting the morgue-like chill ushered in by Richard’s reign. A presidential television broadcast coronation, with a hollow broken prop of a wife airbrushed in for press pics and then discarded.  As Richard’s followers desert him, the old Queen Margaret (played so effectively by Matthew Sim) returns again, calling his name like the doom-laden caws of a rook or a crow come to accuse him.

Tyrell (the murderer played with fragile tenderness and uncertainty by Jonathan Warde) kills again and again. But his tale of his time with the young Princes in The Tower chills the most.
Now the two old Queens of Woe meet again, Elizabeth and Margaret, bonded by grief and part-reconciled by what could be their mutual shame at not having protected their loved ones from this monster in their midst.

Now Elizabeth confronts Richard. At the last we see a woman stripped of dignity, her garb of office, and her need to stay composed, and in the face of all Richard has done her, face yet another blackmail of an even more gut-churning proposition. A fantastic scene - stirring stuff from Candida Benson!

With Richmond arriving to seize back the crown, we hear the old propaganda machine start up again. This time from both sides. “God fights on our side” we are told. Countrymen, nobles and serfs are conscripted, and likewise stripped, of identity other than as pawns in another’s game, machines of war, urged on from behind, and pushed on by the repetitive, ever drumming, deafening pounding beat, and flash, of war.  In the end, “order” is returned, but of course, the same cycles look set to begin again.

Brilliant. The ending I mean… not the recommencing cycles.

The director, (Ben Kidd) in his notes asserts that W.S. cannot believe his own propaganda, (that Elizabeth I’s grandfather, Richmond, was so noble).  But perhaps he misses one point. The play is both a piece of propaganda, and, a play about it, and not a celebratory piece either. So defusing his (W.S.’s) own message about the absolute nobility of Richmond and heirs, and the absolute demonism of Richard.

Praise to the lighting designer (Paul Green), the sound designer (Sam Ward) for often stark, unflattering, sometimes casino-esque lighting and for brooding, almost soul-less music, to create a foul nation-state in which we watched a society slowly each itself alive. Nasty!

A wonderful production. 

Highly recommended.

 

 

 

Box Office: 020 8237 1111

Venue Website: www.riversidestudios.co.uk

Address: Riverside Studios, Crisp Road, London, W6 9RL

Time:               7. 30pm (Matinees – 2.00pm)
Tickets:            £10.00 to £18.50

 

 

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