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Richard III

William Shakespeare
Royal Shakespeare Company
The Roundhouse
(2008)

Production phot by Ellie Kurttz

Michael Boyd is undoubtedly the contemporary champion of Shakespeare's tetralogy of history plays, of which this is the last in the sequence. In 2000 and 2001, before he was the RSC's artistic director, he had a hand in the direction of Henry VI and then Richard III with Aidan McArdle in the title role.

This time around, he once again directs a production that has both similarities and major differences from that one.

Robert Tanitch is reviewing the whole cycle for the British Theatre Guide, but it seemed useful to focus in on a couple of plays in greater detail. This does have its penalties, since the complexities of Richard III would not be quite as great for those who already recognize the characters from watching the three-part play about his distant cousin, Henry VI.

This time, Boyd and his designer Tom Piper have chosen to set the play in modern times, conjuring up the gangster mood of The Godfather. Perhaps more accurately, this production might be compared to a British movie such as The Long Good Friday, with black clothes and sunglasses de rigueur and the milieu controlled by a diminutive gangland thug.

Richard bestrides a small stage that trusts deep into the audience. They span approximately 210° of the narrowed down space, with catwalks meaning that entrances and exits regularly keep them involved.

Jonathan Slinger plays the part as a lisping, slightly camp comedian who enjoys chatting with his audience and can never forgive his God or his family for physical deformities that leave him wearing a permanent brace on his left leg and sporting a mulberry birthmark rather like that of Mikhail Gorbachev.

The actor leaves us in little doubt that his incompleteness is more than just skin deep, the malign character's psychological weaknesses arguably far more damaging than the physical.

While undoubtedly wicked, the little chap does possess great charm, although one suspects that it is far more his self-confidence and the power of inherited majesty that guarantee his ability to make others bow to his will.

His chief henchman is Richard Cordery's Buckingham, a large man whose self-interest eventually gets the better of him, after which his leader quickly ensures that he is a dead one.

In that few of them have significant roles, Boyd has done well to cast excellent actresses in all of the major female parts. As Lady Anne and the Duchess of York, Hannah Barrie and Maureen Beattie impressed. With meatier roles, Anne Ogbomo playing Queen Elizabeth and especially Katy Stephens as Queen Margaret make a major impact on proceedings, the latter especially so, tellingly laying out the ultra-realistic bones of her dead son in a scene that might well turn stomachs.

The women suffer the mental turmoil, but it is their menfolk whom Richard picks off one by one, mainly in spectacular fashion. We see James Tucker's Clarence teased and tormented by a pair of comic executioners with a touch of the Michael Caine about them; Hastings' (Tom Hodgkins) head in a plastic bag; the sweet young princes dispatched to the Tower from which they will never return; and a stream of kings and dukes whose only appearance is in ghostly form.

After all of that, this Duke of Gloucester eventually becomes King Richard III but, with his throne resting on the bodies of family and friends, the cripple's reign was never likely to be either long or happy.

After so much darkness, at least the Coronation with its plainsong and golden robes is cheering. From there though, it is no distance to the battlefield on which Richard desperately seeks a horse in order to carry on his fight with the young Earl of Richmond (played by the appropriately named Lex Shrapnel), who will take his crown and become Henry VII.

After a truly chilling, mutual dream scene with the dead on vindictive parade, the battle itself really brings out the best in the production team, the theatre literally shaking at one point before the battle itself is waged in dance.

In true RSC style, Jonathan Slinger who is no film or TV superstar stepped up to the plate and really delivered in the title role. From the first soliloquy, "Now is the winter of our discontent" he grabbed the attention and presented an entirely coherent character, his delivery very much in the style of Simon Russell Beale, who played the role for the RSC in the early 1990s.

The modernity really works in this fine production, the audience often appreciating the filmic pacing and familiarity of contemporary visual values imposed upon a classic story. The best image of the lot, inducing a couple of laughs from audience members, was when the King sought proof of his young cousins' demise in the Tower and was presented with an image on a mobile phone.

Tickets are almost impossible to get but if you are aged between 16 and 25, a small number should be available to those who are willing to queue up early in the morning.

We acknowledge with grateful thanks Michael Boyd's willingness to invite BTG into a late preview. The only indication that the actors were not quite ready for the first night was in a comically shambolic curtain call, where unanticipated audience enthusiasm caught the actors by surprise.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher