Richard III

William Shakespeare

West Yorkshire Playhouse

Quarry Theatre, West Yorkshire Playhouse

From 25 September 2015 to 17 October 2015

Review by Ray Brown

"A horse! A horse, my kingdom for a horse!" along with "To be or not to be?" one of the best-known Shakespearean quotes of all time. The play itself is perhaps a little less well known.

It tells of court intrigue, murder, unbridled ambition. Appropriate to our day then, as more people come to believe that "the People’s Princess" was murdered, possibly on the instructions of her father-in-law, and stories of the behaviour of the Queen Mother suggest she was a monster. Don’t even mention Prince Andrew and the other stuff! How odd that in the days of nanotechnology we still have "royals".

However, the play sees Richard (Reece Dinsdale) as the ultimate two-faced villain, happily spilling the beans of treachery to the audience whilst, equally happily, spilling the blood of those who stand between himself and the crown.

As Alan Bennett’s mother is reported to have said whilst queuing to see Olivier’s Hamlet, "I’ve seen it before, he dies in the end". And so does Richard, during the Battle of Bosworth, 1485. His downfall is beautifully staged (fight directors Rachel Bown Williams and Ruth Cooper-Brown): gradually tangled in rope he falls to the ground. What a tangled web we weave.

In fact the staging, in the sense of set, lights and sound, is excellent, symbolic, often spectacular and supportive of, and sometimes advancing, the narrative. Set designer Conor Murphy literally rings the changes; three increasingly wide circular metal constructions (crowns) carry lights, and can be moved in wondrous ways. The massive Quarry stage itself is half-ringed by a lustrous construction formed by doors which open to effect and to allow entrances and exits.

Sinead McKenna (lights) contributes to the atmosphere with tight spots whilst shadows dance on Murphy’s slim towering doors. Meanwhile, composer and sound designer Jon Nicholls treats us to a superbly atmospheric soundtrack. In all, this is very classy stuff; off hand I’d say the best set I’ve seen on the Quarry stage.

Do the thesps and director (Mark Rosenblatt) live up to the tech? I think with tweaks they will. However on press night (packed house) the first half felt rushed, far too much shouting, the text was often lost.

Unfortunately we also discovered the production's weak spot: the introduction of technological gimmickry, telephones, portable radio, and the like. This clashes with the austere elegance of set, sound, and lights. Perhaps it comes from "ideas of what we can do to tart it up" rather than an exploration of the play itself and what it has to offer. If microphones, why not revolvers? Twentieth century technology in this context is redundant, juvenile, non-germane.

However, this glitch fits nicely with the other weakness. We have repeated scenes in which actors in face masks and white surgeon wardrobe wheel concealed corpses and named coffins around. It is a little too close to the pantomime wallpapering scene. We wait for the gurneys to collapse, for buckets of blood to be splashed around. The programme makes unwise reference to the humour to be found in the play. Sadly the humour is imposed, not found.

But what of performance? It climbs to heights in the second half. Far less messy. And particularly impressive performances from Ben Addis as Richard’s spin doctor Buckingham and Jane Bertish who is a fierce presence as Queen Margaret, a lady one wouldn’t want to cross.

There is some doubling and tripling, interesting at times, but also sometimes confusing; murderers in particular tend to have the presence of Ealing Comedy walk-ons. Perhaps this is another deliberate attempt to "find the humour". In all this is a fine and highly talented cast, the acting is strong and believable. But what of Dinsdale’s Richard?

Anyone tackling Richard III moves in the shadows of Olivier and Sher. They took this role, chewed it and came up with signal, game-changing characterisations. Brave professionals attempt to find sunlight.

At first I thought Reece Dinsdale, with his blocked shoe, awkward leg, Soho ‘tash and dark-suited nod to our contemporary Machiavellian, Peter Mandelson, had failed. He so imposing, the set so austere and provocative, the performances so frenetic... I wanted to pop a parrot on his shoulder and have a laugh. But as the cast settled down and the text became articulated and clear, Dinsdale became mesmeric.

There are moments of greatness in this production and in Reece Dinsdale’s performance. The whole is set fair to become a classic, the kind of show one feels lucky to have seen.