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Richard III

William Shakespeare
Propeller
Hampstead Theatre
(2011)

Richard III production photo

Richard III is usually classified as one of Shakespeare's history plays. Judging by this production, if Edward Hall had his way, it would be firmly set amongst the comedies.

Hall has been here before with Rose Rage, his updated adaptation of the Henry VI plays. He gruesomely set those in an abattoir and has followed suit with the final play in the quartet.

This makes the atmosphere grim from the off despite some jaunty songs which are, like the costumes, Edwardian. It also leaves the supernumeraries spending much of the two and three-quarter hours dressed in (sometimes bloodied) butcher's overalls and white masks.

This conception makes very clear the bloodthirsty nature of Richard himself and the playwright who recreated him for the stage. From the earliest scenes, this determined cripple, played by Richard Clothier who has something of the look of Olivier, knows that he is destined to be King and will wipe out anybody that gets in his way, however innocent they may be.

It is not just a crown that the "bottled spider" wishes to claim. He also has an eye for the ladies, or at least those who are of royal blood. His conquest of Jon Trenchard's Lady Anne, whose father and husband he has killed, shows not only determination but also Richard's great charm and wicked sense of humour.

In this version, the Royal ladies make a big impact, with Tony Bell's Queen Margaret particularly striking as she rails against her wicked son-in-law, at one point in an intoxicating, grieving trio completed by Richard's mother the Duchess of York and his predecessor's widow, Queen Elizabeth (Kelsey Brookfield and Dominic Tighe). They have much to cry about as few of the regal menfolk (including two lovely puppet princes) survive for long when Richard is around.

One thing that you realise in this swift production is that Richard made himself a ruthless mass murderer, with no qualm about killing his family, his friends and his own hired hands. It is only in the cleverly conceived dream scene on the eve of the Battle of Bosworth that his conscience finally kicks in with devastating effect.

This leads into an unseen final battle with a poignant plea for a horse prior to a suitably bloody denouement.

There is a great deal to enjoy in this dark, gory reading of the play, though anyone with a weak stomach is likely to struggle from the earliest scenes.

It will be fascinating to contrast Edward Hall's blackly humorous, touring production for Propeller with Sam Mendes's Bridge Project version of Richard III which opens at the Old Vic less than a week after this London debut.

The one certainty is that there will be significant differences but who will win the battle of the Richards remains a big question.

This production was reviewed by Velda Harris in Sheffield and by Seth Ewin in Edinburgh

Reviewer: Philip Fisher