“That excellent grand tyrant”: A Review of Richard III, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Thursday 19 October–Saturday 28 October

October 22, 2017


richard-iii-web-fin RWCMD

Richard III is an early Shakespeare play, probably written just a couple of years into his career as an actor-dramatist, in which Shakespeare provides a perfect infusion of dramatic elements borrowed and refined from contemporaries such as Thomas Kyd, Christopher Marlowe, and George Peele. In these times of political and economic ambiguity, in which monsters seem to have gained power through uncertain means, it is apt that Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama should put on a production concerning a warped Machiavellian villain, whose theatrical predecessors include Kyd’s Lorenzo and Marlowe’s Barabas.

As is characteristic of many Richard III productions, this version began with the end scenes from Henry VI Part Three, in which King Henry VI (Lewis Cope) is executed by Richard (Sam John). The production started with a bang, quite literally, as Richard put a bullet in the incarcerated king. Richard III is a notoriously long play, but this version was edited appropriately, and the breakneck speed of the scene transitions was dazzling. Richard was swiftly plotting against anyone who stood in the way of his procuration of the crown, all at once disturbing audience members with his bloody complots, while, paradoxically, recruiting them for his cause through wry humour. Richard is a wonderful role that most actors would surely relish (I know I would!), and I must take my hat off to Sam John. His Richard was believable, naturalistic, the grand iambic speeches resembling covert conversations behind closed political doors. Richard is very much a metatheatrical figure, and thus it was difficult to begrudge John the odd theatrical wink, such as when he began reciting Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ speech, or introduced the odd expletive and interpolation, such as, ‘huggy times’. As any good Richard should, John had the audience in his pocket, formulating evil plans with a clenched gloved hand, transitioning from a black leg brace to a golden one, manipulating us and the characters with whom he shared the stage.

Before long, he was organising the murder of his brother Clarence (played by the mellifluous Justin Davies), in a scene that, it seems to me, is heavily dependent on Scene Nineteen of Thomas Kyd’s The True Chronicle History of King Leir (one of Shakespeare’s most important sources), as the murderers vacillated over the killing before throttling Clarence to death. Thomas Dylan gave a very assured performance as the ruffian Murderer 1 and Tyrrell, and director Joe Murphy made the admirable decision of ensuring he had as much stage time as possible. With King Edward (Javen K. Crosby) and his sons out of the way, the bunch-backed villain (a historically inaccurate portrayal of Richard’s character, largely derived from Holinshed) was mounting a campaign to be regarded as true heir to the throne. This production injected plenty of humour into Shakespeare’s play, including black comedy, as Richard’s faction tossed a decapitated head about like a rugby ball, and modern humour, such as Tyrrell’s allusion to the Harry Potter franchise. The scene in which Richard pretended to be holy and virtuous in the presence of the Mayor (Lewis Coster) and Archbishop (Davies) was ridiculous, its ridiculousness exacerbated by the use of a fake beard, but we are accustomed to the absurd in modern politics: take Melania Trump’s Republican National Convention speech for instance, or the battle for worst hairdo between President Trump and his North Korean counterpart. Such scenes demonstrated how fickle the public can be in times of uncertainty, how easily manipulated.

Tyrants must fall. Richard’s abuse of power soon became apparent, as Buckingham (played by the excellent Franchi Webb) could testify. Richard was readying himself for battle, but not before a powerful confrontation with ex-Queen Elizabeth. Shakespeare’s rapid-fire stichomythic dialogue (another device he seems to have largely adopted from Kyd) can seem strange to modern ears, but the scene between John and Roxy Swart was electric. Similarly, Shakespeare’s rhetorical flourishes in the Senecan Chorus-like lamentations of the three women, Elizabeth, the Duchess of York (Foxey Hardman), and Margaret (Luciana Trapman) can seem archaic to modern audiences, but the scene, which emphasises the fulfilment of Margaret’s prophecies, was played with alacrity and ease.

Time was running out for Richard. This was emphasised by the noise of a ticking clock (indeed, the Sound Designer, Euan Foster, deserves a pat on the back for the choice of ominous music and sound throughout the production). Richard was isolated, acknowledging that he was a villain (‘with tears in his eyes, distraction in his aspect’; John peaked with his superb delivery of this speech), haunted by all of his victims. Having Richard alone throughout the Battle of Bosworth, accompanied by a cacophony of voices, was a wise directorial decision that highlighted his isolation.

The king was dead. Long live the new king (Richmond, played by Cope; this use of doubling gave the play a truly cyclical feel). The actors bowed to rapturous applause, and I braved Storm Brian back to my car, delighted with what was a truly special performance. An audience member’s voice cut through the tempestuous gusts: ‘The set was excellent!’ Hannah Page’s set really was excellent, enabling the actors to operate on many levels, allowing the audience to see battlefields and streets and palaces and dungeons in our minds’ eyes, and all this was helped by Samuel Child-Cavill’s commendable use of lighting, from the appearance of a giant red rose before the actors graced the stage, which resembled a bloody thumbprint (England was very much under the tyrant’s thumb), to the hazy, spectral figures of Richard’s victims near the end of the production. It is a pity that our own political landscape should house such tyrants.

Anyone interested in Shakespeare, or political intrigue; anyone who is a fan of great theatre, of action, of black comedy; anyone who seeks to find future stars in the constellations of the film and theatre business, should go and see this wonderful production.


One comment

  1. […] here. For the Cardiff Shakespeare review of Richard III at the Royal Welsh College last year, see here. On ‘Richard III and staging disability’, visit the British Library website here. Those […]

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