The first production of the York Shakespeare Project
Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York
Richard III is the first step on a long road for the York Shakespeare Project: the production of every Shakespeare play - in chronological order - over a period of twenty years. It's a very mixed group: from people with professional experience to those who are appearing onstage for the first time. It's a bold venture and could turn out to be a case of "vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself", "a palpable hit", or something in between.
The cast is largely amateur, under the control of a professional director, John White (not his stage name), who has worked with both the RSC and RNT in a long acting career. His major achievement in this production is to get his cast, the vast majority of whom have not played Shakespeare before, to be able to handle Shakespeare's verse with clarity and sensitivity. At a time when a large number of professional actors seem unable to do so, this is no mean achievement.
Alan Booty's Richard echoes Olivier's famous version but adds a sparkle in the eye and a relationship with the audience which diminish the comicbook evil of his illustrious predecessor whilst, paradoxically, making the character more frightening, because more human.
None of the others quite achieved the same standard, although Marija Maher's Anne and Judith Ireland's Queen Elizabeth came close. They had what the others lacked, that union between word and movement, between voice and body, which enables us to forget that we are watching actors in a play. With most of the rest of the cast, the words - meaning and emotion - came across strongly but the body was static: movements were clearly the result of thinking about the lines rather than an emotional reaction to them.
That said, for a cast of this experience to get so far is a major achievement in ityself and augurs well for the future of the project.
John White's reading of the play sends out some mixed messages. Most of the time it is in keeping with the whole canon of the history plays - a traditional reading, in fact - but occasionally there are some melodramatic moments. Richard's suborning of Tyrell to murder the Princes is played on a deeply shadowed stage whilst the cyclorama behind is stained a deep red. All very effective, but rather odd when surrounded by a full-up lighting state, which is what we have for most of the time.
Richard III is a very melodramtic play and, to my mind, this production would have benefited by more rather than less of the melodrama. What there was merely made me sigh for what might have been,
It is also rather wordy in places and would have benefited from some fairly fundamental cutting. To be honest, Edward IV's "reconciliation" scene goes on far too long and even the most accomplished actors have difficulty holding the audience's attention during it. I suspect Shakespeare's groundlings would have made their feelings very clear: today we are much too polite!
The Project's next production is a total change - The Taming of the Shrew. I look forward to it. Richard has got them off to a promising start: of course there are weaknesses, but they will gradually diminish as the company becomes more at home with Shakespeare and, hopefully, moves away from the traditional readings of the plays. The first production has to play safe: now they can begin to take risks!
The Taming of the Shrew will play at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre from 17-22 June, 2003.
Reviewer: Peter Lathan