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Richard III

William Shakespeare
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-on-Avon
(2003)

There's a growing movement which holds the view that Richard III wasn't as bad as he's portrayed. The basis of this theory is that the accounts of the battle at Bosworth Field were formulated and passed down by those who were on the winning side.

An eminent professor recently wrote a book which put Richard in a totally new light. It claimed there was no evidence that he killed the princes in the tower and he was too good a tactician to allow his forces to be penned in at Bosworth, as history informs us.

But while Shakespeare's play continues to be performed, there'll always be the perception that Richard was a despicable villain whose death was merited so that the good guys of the Tudor dynasty could restore order to the country.

Whether Sean Holmes who directs this lively interpretation and Henry Goodman have studied the new controversy is unclear. Goodman's Richard takes the character probably further down the road of evil than he's ever limped before.

He is thoroughly evil, so manipulative and scheming that you don't feel a morsel of sympathy for him. That starts almost immediately when he utters "dogs bark at me as I halt by them" - and on hearing a growling hound offstage he mercilessly stabs it to death.

You laugh at his funny lines and you marvel at his audacity, especially as he woos Anne after murdering her husband. But positive feelings for Richard? There are none.

You're in total agreement with him before the battle at the end of the play when he says "If I die, no soul shall pity me" and also with Richmond who describes him as "a bloody tyrant, one that hath ever been God's enemy."

That is an inherent part of the play, not a criticism of Goodman who totally immerses himself in the role.

The opening of the play, with its familiar first speech, can become ordinary and hackneyed. But not here. Goodman's head peeps between blood-red curtains and a single spotlight picks him out as he rasps out the first lines.

In cream-coloured Edwardian top hat and tails, Goodman looks a vaudevillian toff - until he tries to "caper nimbly in a lady's chamber to the lascivious pleasing of a lute". It's obvious he can't dance and in his frustration he rips off his disguise to reveal the full horror of his deformities, including a withered arm, a clubfoot and a disfigured left side of his face.

His manoeuvring and plotting to get the throne at all costs makes Goodman's performance all the more engrossing. But his downfall is less consuming, especially when he meets his match in Queen Elizabeth. Maureen Beattie is wonderfully feisty, as dominant a character as Goodman, commanding the stage and giving better than she gets before Richard resumes control.

As for the rest of the cast, Malcolm Sinclair is a smooth, suave Buckingham who colludes with Richard to get him onto the throne before being mercilessly cast aside. Everyone else is capable but never overshadows Goodman. The production stands or falls on him; for the most part his Richard really is "a tower of strength".

Richard III runs until November 8th

Reviewer: Steve Orme