Richard III

William Shakespeare
Arden Theatre Company
Arc, Stockton

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Richard III is one of Shakespeare's earliest plays and it shows. It has a great deal of the melodrama about it: not only is Richard Gloucester a double-dyed villain and as twisted in mind as in body, but his opponent, Richmond, is truly spotless, a representation of all that is good and noble; the play is haunted by the figure of Queen Margaret, constantly reminding us of past evils committed by the House of York; there are two innocent children (whom we are shown in all their innocence), foully murdered; in the last act, the ghosts of all those killed by Richard hover through the dreams of the hero and villain, giving support to the one and cursing the other. One could go on - and on.

When played straight, it is uncomfortable viewing, not because of the murder and mayhem, or even the equation of disability with evil, but simply because we are very aware of watching a piece of Tudor propaganda, a bit of agitprop. It is just too unsubtle.

So some kind of stylised playing is needed. At the 1998 Edinburgh Fringe Malachi Bogdanov and the English Shakespeare Company played Richard as a toddler in a romper suit with a plastic sword and a bouncy castle - and, yes, it worked (see our review). Robert Icke and the Arden Theatre Company do not go that far but they do go well beyond the naturalistic playing that served them well in previous productions (their Shrew, for example, and Twelfth Night).

It's unusual for a reviewer to mention the lighting before the performances, but here it's essential, for the lighting is an important part of the sylised playing. Here there are two basic lighting states: one, which in fact comprises a number of states really, is what we might call the "normal" state(s), the lighting in which most of the action of the play takes place, and the other is the state in which Richard addresses the audience. Nothing unusual in that, perhaps, except that it is Richard who brings about the change of state: when he wishes to speak to the audience, he snaps his fingers and a circular spot from directly overhead snaps on. He finishes what he has to say, there's another snap of the fingers, and we are back to "normal". It's a clever idea and works well, especially when, as his power starts to fade, the lights don't change, to his consternation.

Then there are the appearances of Queen Margaret in the background. As often she is placed high up, but this time she is lit from below (a little too horror movie, perhaps?) with a bare bulb above her swinging around and around - most effective.

Lighting is by Matthew Case and it really is one of the stars of the show.

But Daniel Hill is certainly another. His Richard exhibits a knowing, unholy glee in what he is doing which is almost attractive and distances him from the villain of melodrama. He is well matched by Hannah Morrison's Queen Elizabeth. When she first appears after the murder of her children, she seems to teeter on the edge of madness but the steeliness of mind - which she must have had to work herself into the position of wife of Edward IV and promote her family and friends - reasserts itself and there are real sparks in her confrontation with Richard.

Morrison, in fact, appears twice: she switches from Elizabeth to Young Edward, her son, just as Rachel Scott (Lady Anne) becomes Young Richard. They make a very convincing couple of young boys but the resonances are very powerful.

Indeed Icke has taken great care over the doubling of parts: it's not just a case of "Well, he vanishes as A then, so he can play B then" but there are real resonances set up by the doubling: Edward IV (David Kirkbride) becomes Hastings; Clarence (Mark Edwards) becomes Ratcliff; and Brackenbury (Tom Wells) becomes Catesby. But most thought-provoking of all is the doubling of Buckingham with Richmond (both played by Josh 'JD' Mason). Now there is food for thought!

As we have come to expect from Arden, this is a very intelligent and thoughtful production.

Reviewer: Peter Lathan

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