(Apollo Theatre, London, playing in rep with Twelfth Night until 10 February 2013)
After garnering rave reviews at the Globe over the summer, this company has moved to winter quarters at the Apollo. A beautiful wooden set recalls the Globe’s stage while also suggesting the feel of an indoor Jacobean theatre: two arched doorways at the back of the stage are surmounted by a musicians’ balcony and on either side are two tiers of wooden seating. It’s a taste of what the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is going to look like.
Every detail is perfect: the touchstone of this production is historical accuracy and so the female roles are played by men; the poster is a simple playbill without a photo; the stage is lit by six chandeliers bearing real candles; and, if you arrive early, you can watch the actors dress (the stage serves as a kind of public tiring-house). You see men wandering about in shirt and hose, chatting idly to one another, or being laced into their padded doublets by the company’s dressers. I watched two assistants helping Samuel Barnett into his farthingale and I had never realised before how much time and effort it takes to put on an Elizabethan gown: the better part of twenty-five minutes, at least. Just before the play began, when the musicians were playing some of their introductory pieces (on historically-accurate instruments such as bagpipes, shawms and sackbuts), the candles were lit and the chandeliers ceremonially hoisted up. The play hadn’t even begun and I was already caught up in the sense of being in another time.
This is the third Richard III I’ve seen since I moved to London: the first was the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2008 modern-dress production at the Roundhouse, with Jonathan Slinger as the king; and the second was the 2011 version at the Old Vic (just before I began this blog, which is a shame, because I’d have loved to write about it), again in modern costume, with Kevin Spacey as Richard. The Globe’s production is radically different, not only in that it allows us to see the play as Shakespeare intended, but also in its presentation of Richard himself. Both Slinger and Spacey played Richard as a malcontent: a subtle and embittered megalomaniac, who turned a sweet face to the world while he had to, but who sparked with gimlet-edged rage in his soliloquies. Those were men who had been overlooked because of physical difference (Slinger’s limp and large birthmark across his face; Spacey’s hump and leg twisted cruelly in a brace), but you never doubted that there was a sharp and withering intelligence hidden within each of them.
Rylance takes a rather different tack. His Richard has a limp, hobbling around the stage with his right foot turned outwards, and a withered left arm (cleverly done), but the character is different: softer, emotionally unbalanced and petulant, rather than coldly calculating. Yet he is no less dangerous for that: he switches unpredictably between giving affectionate caresses to his toadies and shrieking at them in a rage. He speaks haltingly and sometimes trails off for a moment, which gives the impression that this Richard is not speaking a script but simply the words of his own mind. He’s initially amiable, his good-natured bonhomie hiding an inner self-loathing, and despite everything he goes through in the course of the play you never believe that he really knows his own mind. He seems to genuinely believe his own penitence when he’s engaged in it, but minutes later he can order a murder with airy ease. In short, he made me think at times of a child in a man’s body who sees power as a way to get revenge on those who’ve mocked and hurt him.
Of course it was very well played – Rylance had the audience in the palm of his hand and a mere glance or hesitation provoked flurries of laughter. He can do no wrong for the theatre-going public of London at the moment, since his monumental performance in Jerusalem (which I regret to say I missed). But I think that personally I would prefer a less distracted Richard, with slightly more wit and menace. Part of the horror and thrill of this play is seeing the cruel competence slowly being revealed beneath the velvet smile: I didn’t feel that Rylance’s Richard was ever a strong enough character to be a real danger to the realm. Another interesting point about this production is that the character of Margaret of Anjou has been completely excised. In my opinion, the play works well without her: the Old Vic’s Richard III had a particularly over-the-top Margaret who has rather put me off the role for the time being.
Laurels must go to four of the company who I thought were especially good for various reasons. First among them was Samuel Barnett (playing Queen Elizabeth), whom I last saw in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and of whom I’ve thought very highly ever since his sympathetic turn in The History Boys. He was superb as Elizabeth, beautifully arrayed in a farthingale and black taffeta: he moved with consummate grace as if born to it, walking so smoothly that he seemed to be gliding across the floor. Interestingly, Elizabeth is not a role that’s caught my eye in the other productions I’ve seen, but here Barnett gave her a strength and poise that were really impressive. This Elizabeth isn’t afraid of Richard: she stands up to him, she throws his misdeeds back at him when he comes wooing her daughter, and you could well imagine that here was a mother who would have made a fine regent for her son. Barnett managed to convey all this woman’s pride and fire without slipping into the squeaky end of falsetto: as anyone who’s seen his turn as Brief Encounter‘s Laura in The History Boys will know, his impersonation of a female voice is pretty darn good.
Johnny Flynn, as Lady Anne, didn’t fare quite as well as Barnett but, to be fair to him, he had a devil of a part. I’ve never seen a Lady Anne I liked – they’re always shrill – and so I think probably it’s the fault of the role rather than the actors. But it’s ironic that Barnett was so much more convincing as a woman than Flynn: Flynn is playing Viola in Twelfth Night, while Barnett is Sebastian, so that’s going to be interesting.
Another impressive actor was Paul Chahidi, who played Hastings and Tyrell, although both characters were so different that I wouldn’t have guessed it was the same man. Hastings was full of bombast and bluster, whereas Tyrell was a slimy villain; and in both roles Chahidi spoke beautifully clearly. Although I was tucked up in the balcony, high above the stage, I heard his words as precisely as if I were in the stalls. Also playing two roles – and radically different in each – was James Garnon. Beginning as the aged Duchess of York, moving stoutly around the stage with the brisk voice of a bitter grand dame, he then went off and transformed himself into dashing young Richmond for the final act. I was astounded and I still can’t quite believe it was the same actor. Finally, a special mention to Dylan Standen, the 11-year-old boy who played Richard, Duke of York. He delivered all his lines with such clarity and flair that I was thoroughly impressed: I think great things lie in wait for him. Plus, he was adorable.
It was brilliant to see an authentically Shakespearean production of this kind and I came away feeling as if I’d dipped into the late 16th century for an evening. Overall I don’t think I was quite as wildly impressed as many reviewers have been, simply because I found myself constantly comparing it to the Old Vic version with Kevin Spacey. The two productions both had particular strengths and areas where they weren’t quite as successful, and I really can’t say that one was better than the other: they were both very good, in their individual ways. I think that the true talent of this company will only become apparent when I’ve seen Twelfth Night as well and can compare the actors across the two plays. Mark Rylance will swap the crown for a farthingale, as Olivia; Samuel Barnett will be out of skirts as Sebastian; and Paul Chahidi, intriguingly, will be into skirts as Maria. The lady sitting next to me last night had seen Twelfth Night only a couple of days ago and said it was marvellous, so I can’t wait. And of course there’s Stephen Fry to look forward to as Malvolio as well…