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Richard III

William Shakespeare
Southwark Playhouse & Tangram Theatre
Southwark Playhouse
(2007)

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Shakespeare's Richard is the monster figure of Tudor propaganda, and never more so than in this compacted version of the play. For Tangram Theatre, John Lightbody plays him without the hunchback's hump but with a limp, as though with one fore-shortened leg. One arm is fastened to his coat, bent-upwards and immovable. When he unpins it to demonstrate how, he claims, it has been bewitched, it lifelessly flops forward. He speaks with precise and cultured tones and when he pause his tongue flickers like a serpent's.

This pared down production, by Daniel Goldman and Donnacadh O'Briain, is cut so that it runs only about 100 minutes and all the other roles can be doubled by eight actors. Inevitably, perhaps, they become subsidiary figures to what seems a succession of speeches by the eponymous villain. No sooner is one obstacle to the crown removed, than we are on to another murder, the killings demonstrated by puppet dolls destroyed and decapitated by the red-gloved hands of their operators.

Set mainly on a ramped traverse walkway with a skeletal throne at its top, against a red rear wall (designer Naomi Dawson), the action also envelopes the audience. Whispers and cries and choral murmurings susurrate behind the audience's backs; metal clashes and resounding thumps come from the seating rostra being stuck, as well as the beating of drums, tintinnabulations and pipes that all form part of the score by Alex Silverman that supports the action and, in the battle build-up to Richard's death, quite swamps the dialogue.

There are strong performances from Clara Onyemere as Queen Elizabeth and Jotham Annan as Buckingham and Richmond - there is also a startling effect when he crawls out of a trap and down the ramp to become the corpse of the murdered Henry VI. Thomas Armstrong, Alex Britton, Leon Scott and Sion Tudor Owen handle the other male roles effectively. Despite the army- (or rather RAF-) surplus style of most of the costumes, characters are usually clearly identified. Changes are established by seeing the - usually deceased - character being re-robed with new accessories before they enter the action. This didn't happen - or if it did I missed it - when Valerie O'Connor went from playing Lady Anne to being the Duchess of York and since, for no clear reason, she plays them both with an Irish accent (Anne Neville was born in Warwick!) I was in some confusion - particularly since I think any reference to Anne's death was missing.

Aiocha Kossoko presents a powerfully-voiced and histrionic Queen Margaret. She is not afraid to use poses and gestures that echo those that were traditional in centuries past and her command of them makes them very effective, as too is a moment when Annan's Richmond poses with sword arm outstretched over the dying Richard.

Everything seems to happen so quickly in this presentation of the play that I am not sure how easily someone unfamiliar with it could follow actual events, they seem to happen in such rapid succession. Partly, that is Shakespeare's fault: I don't remember him giving any indication that there are eleven years, for instance, between Anne's marriage to Richard and their coronation. What you do get is the relentless sweep of Richard's ruthless determination and a strong sense of the power of theatre but the production allows itself and its performers no time to explore anything further.

Until 20th October: matinees 2pm Monday-Wednesday, 7.30pm Wednesday-Saturday

Reviewer: Howard Loxton