Richard III: William Shakespeare

Richard III: William Shakespeare

★★★½

(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.

Richard III: William Shakespeare

Dorset (Ben Thompson), Queen Elizabeth (Samuel Barnett) and Rivers (Ian Drysdale) © Simon Annand

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.

Richard III: William Shakespeare

Queen Elizabeth (Samuel Barnett) confronts Richard (Mark Rylance)

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…

Richard III: William Shakespeare

Lady Anne (Johnny Flynn) and Richard III (Mark Rylance) © Simon Annand

11 thoughts on “Richard III: William Shakespeare

  1. Jonathan Evans says:

    Wanted very much to like this but, unfortunately, found it a bit of a struggle. I'm not a fan of original practices, and Globe productions that go down that route can have a kind of “faux-period” look that leads me to think I'm watching a re-enactment rather than a drama. And 'Richard III' is not a play that really benefits from an all-male cast unlike, say, 'Twelfth Night', which is founded upon sexual ambiguity.

    I appreciated what Rylance was trying to do with the character, but I think he would have been aided by a production that tried to be more psychologically real in other areas. I also think losing Margaret was a mistake, as it divorces the play from the cycle of violence that creates Richard (he and Margaret are different sides of the same coin and both as appalling in many ways).

    My favourite Richard remains Ian McKellen's at the NT in about 1990. That was the one time I saw him played as a totally convincing real-world character amongst a supporting cast that was clearly delineated and equally human.

    Oh – agree that Anne is always shrill and the character works best when the actor understands that and doesn't play against it. Shakespeare's Anne is not nice. She's self-righteous and self-dramatising. In fact, none of the characters that Richard gets rid of is particularly admirable. Even Richard Duke of York is written as a bit of a brat. All of which, perhaps, contributes towards the providential reading that has the godless machiavel unwittingly being God's agent and sweeping away the detritus of 80-odd years of civil strife prior to the glorious new dawn of the Tudors (who were nasty pieces of work, far more so than the historical Richard, but that's a different subject entirely!)

    Cheers

    Jonathan

  2. The Idle Woman says:

    What an insightful comment! I have a not-so-secret weakness for historical re-enactment (watching it, not doing it) so that's probably why I enjoyed the original practices route more – though I completely agree with what you say about Twelfth Night. It'll be really interesting to see how the all-male cast adds to that dynamic.

    Regarding Margaret, I think if you approach Richard III as an instalment in the History Plays cycle then yes, it is beneficial to keep her because she helps tie things together within the cycle and perpetuates the theme of divine retribution. But the last Margaret I saw at the Old Vic came across as a kind of Blackadderish crone who really undermined the power of the rest of that production for me.

    I wish I'd seen Ian McKellan's Richard on the stage. That would have been something… I don't remember ever having seen the film either.

    Your suggestion that Richard is actually working out some kind of divine plan is fascinating – I'd never thought of it like that, but that is definitely one way of approaching the play. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts – I can see you're a bit of an expert on the text 🙂

  3. Jonathan Evans says:

    I've not seen the 'Twelfth Night', but I have friends who have – one of whom can't usually bear Shakespeare – and all have said it's marvellous. I certainly think Margaret's a difficult character to get right – but if you *do* get her right, it can imbue the whole production with a kind of visceral power. The NT did the cursing scene with lit memorial candles, and the imagery echoed news reports at the time of mothers in Romania after the fall of Ceausescu.

    McKellen's film of 'Richard III' is extremely good but, although strongly inspired by it, a different beast from the stage production. Not least, because it's half the length! It gets rid of Margaret, too (as did Olivier), but there are strong reasons for that. Too much back story, and the tone of the character is theatrical and ritualistic. She's almost like a wraith stepping between two worlds by the time of 'Richard III'. I think, to accommodate that on film, you'd need to do something very surreal, whereas most Shakespeare adaptations – once you get past verse and soliloquy – have aimed more for a naturalistic style.

    I don't know about being an expert, but I did an MA in Shakespeare back in 1993 and focussed on the Histories. Always loved RIII, although my absolute favourite Shakespeare is 'Antony & Cleopatra', followed by the two Henry IVs. Thank you for your kind words – and a very eloquent blog!

    Cheers

    Jonathan

    P.S. I think re-enactment is fascinating, too, and have a friend who does early 15thC. But they can make the smallest anachronism so distracting. When I saw the Globe RIII, one of the musicians, dressed in impeccable period costume, had modern glasses on. Not a big deal, perhaps, but they stood out like a sore thumb because of the pains taken to get everything else right. However, if the musicians had all been in stage blacks, I wouldn't have given it a second thought and nor would it have affected my belief in the original practices presentation on stage. Oh – and Elizabethan costume isn't always as flattering as it thinks it is – particularly the hats. I admit to thinking at one point that the assorted headgear made it look at bit like Shakespeare as performed by the Flowerpot Men. 🙂

  4. The Idle Woman says:

    Ha ha – about the hats: there were some American students in the row behind me (forgive me, any American readers) and one of the girls said to another, “Hey, why are they all wearing top-hats?” But I prefer your idea of the Flowerpot Men.

    I want to see more Shakespeare but obviously London theatre prices are eye-wateringly expensive and you have to be quick off the mark to get a ticket for the 'must-see' plays (I probably won't even be able to get near Jude Law's Henry V). So I need to watch more of the plays on film (do you have any recommendations for a good 'Antony and Cleopatra'?). The Globe's DVD series seems to be a good bet, though again very expensive.

    I know a handful of plays very, very well but I've never even seen a vast number of them. I'm getting into the history plays: I got the Hollow Crown on DVD for Christmas and began with Richard II last night, which I had seen on stage once and no doubt I'll get round to writing about the TV version in due course. Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 are still to come, and I've never seen either of those, I'm ashamed to say, so all very exciting.

  5. Jonathan Evans says:

    Yes, “eye-wateringly expensive” is probably an understatement! Luckily, the NT and the Donmar do reduced price day-seats which are fantastic value if you can face queuing from about 8am till the box office opens. The RSC *probably* does this, too (they do in Stratford, but now they no longer have a permanent London base I'm never sure what the deal is). Pretty sure the Grandage season with Jude Law will also offer day seats.

    The Globe DVD series is, from what I've seen, pretty good. Their Henry IVs are very strong with Roger Allam as Falstaff. But it's a struggle to find decent filmed Shakespeare as the camera so often sucks the life out of things. Liked 'The Hollow Crown', with some reservations (very odd cutting and tried a bit too hard to be cinematic on a budget that, although good, still wasn't quite big enough). Ant & Cleo is more difficult. There was a striking filmed version of Trevor Nunn's 1970s RSC one with Janet Suzman and Richard Johnson that's available on a Region 1 DVD… Actually, there *is* one superb A&C that was filmed – the recent one with Harriet Walter and Patrick Stewart. The only catch is that it's not commercially released, so you have to go to the V&A Theatre Archive and request to see it.

    Other good stuff I can think of, off-hand, that's easy to pick up… Anything with Ian McKellen (aside from his film of RIII, there's Macbeth, Othello (Iago) and Lear – and a fantastic one-man show called 'Acting Shakespeare' that's, again, out on a Region 1 DVD), and the David Tennant 'Hamlet'…

    Jonathan

  6. The Idle Woman says:

    Oh, I loved day seats when I was a student, but they're not so easy to get when you have to be at the office for 9am. No doubt if there is something I'm desperate to see then I can persuade my boss to let me come in a bit later. 🙂

    I really wish I'd seen the Globe's Henry IVs on stage, before I saw Henry V this summer, because of the wonderful sense of continuity with Jamie Parker playing Hal all the way through. Guess I'll just have to make do with the DVDs. I'm not a fan of filmed theatre per se, because as you mention it can look very dull, but I think a Globe performance has a special energy that probably carries onto the screen as well. I see what you mean about The Hollow Crown's attempt to be epic – I noticed this in Richard II and didn't find it entirely successful, but more on that soon. Interesting suggestion about the V&A Theatre Archive; I'm not even sure I knew that existed (I know, for someone who claims to enjoy art and culture my knowledge of facilities in London is lamentable).

    From my point of view, Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing is a dream, as is his Henry V; and I still enjoy the old Zefferelli films, even though The Taming of the Shrew now looks *very* dated. For Othello, did you see the TV version back in 2001 with Christopher Eccleston as Iago? It worked surprisingly well in a modern setting – I was studying it for A level at the time and I adored it (mainly Eccleston's interpretation of Iago). Quite tempted by the newly released Tempest with Helen Mirren as Prospera, although am made wary by the fact Russell Brand is in it. Hmm…

  7. The Idle Woman says:

    P.S. For those who haven't seen the 2001 Othello, I should make it clear that the script's adapted into modern English. In some ways that only emphasises the timeless nature of the story, but perhaps it's not one for text purists…

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