Headlong, Alexandra Palace and Bristol Old Vic
In John Haidar's reworking of Shakespeare story of the rise of Richard, Duke of Gloucester to the throne of England, the famous opening line, "Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this son of York" doesn't appear for quite some time. As a nod to a modern "the story so far" convention in TV, the opening scene is a re-run of Richard's murder of King Henry in a prison cell from the end of Henry VI Part 3.
This isn't a combination of two whole plays like Jude Christian's othellomacbeth, seen at HOME last year, but supplementing Richard III with parts of the earlier play means that there is a lot of story to cram into two and a half hours. Fortunately there is a synopsis of this version in the programme, complete with gender changes, as with a plot that jumps about rather a lot and a lot of characters dressed similarly, male and female, I often felt I was missing something and wasn't always sure who was whom.
After the murder of Lancastrian King Henry (John Sackville), Richard's brother from the House of York becomes King Edward IV (Michael Matus), but Richard's plotting to have the crown on his own head—represented in Chiara Stephenson's stone circle design by a floating crown that descends a little more after each plot comes to fruition—has only just begun. This is set up by a scene in which Richard stays on stage while a succession of different people each come through the mirrored doors surrounding the set, have a brief, rapid conversation with him and then exit for the next to enter.
During all that, Richard has had his brother George, Duke of Clarence (Tom Kanji) imprisoned and has killed the previous king's son, whose widow he is now planning to marry. The scene in which Richard turns Anne (Leila Mimmack) around from spitting hatred at him (literally spitting at one point) to agreeing to marry him is a difficult one to play, and I wasn't entirely convinced by it here. The rest is plots and murders and finally, after Richard is crowned, the Battle of Bosworth followed by the crowning of Richmond (Caleb Roberts) as Henry VII, the first of the Tudors (who, perhaps not coincidentally, were still in charge when Shakespeare wrote this play), to gloriously bring to an end the Wars of the Roses.
There are some aspects of this production that are very effective. The mirrored doors which can become transparent, sometimes to reveal the spirits of those Richard has murdered, work well, and their promises of vengeance before the final battle, each accompanied by blowing white powder into his face—almost turning Richard into a ghost like them—looks great. There is some striking use of sound (George Dennis) and light (Elliot Griggs), especially coming together effectively each time a deathly blow is dealt, the latter making good use of a crown-like circle of colour-changing lights overhead. The fights (Bret Yount) are believable, but when the dialogue refers to swords and they each produce a small knife it's always a bit disappointing.
Tom Mothersdale's constantly moving and twitching Richard—whose physical dexterity, other than his limp, seems to contradict the disabilities he claims to have—revels in his evil deeds like the villain of a melodrama, constantly playing to the gallery with asides and looks but not really, I didn't feel, connecting with the audience and sometimes playing for laughs rather than for meaning. The rest of the cast perform their roles perfectly well but, like most modern politicians, many of their characters are as grey as their costumes.
The production looks on the surface very modern and energetic, but the lack of clarity in the storytelling and the monotony of the pacing made it, for me, quite confusing and I can't say I really felt anything for any of the characters, good or bad. But we don't see that many Richard IIIs in Manchester and there are aspects of this production that are striking, effective and innovative, which perhaps makes it worth a look.