richard iii redux or Sara Beer [is/not] richard iii

Kaite O'Reilly
The Llanarth Group
Seligman Theatre, Chapter, Cardiff

Sara Beer Credit: Paddy Faulkner - Panoptic Photography
Sara Beer Credit: Paddy Faulkner - Panoptic Photography

It has long been established that Shakespeare’s account of the life and career of King Richard III of England (1452-1485) is a prime example of not letting the truth get in the way of a good story. The discovery of his final resting place, underneath a car-park in Leicester in 2012, led to many new reappraisals of this iconic villain, and his many even more iconic incarnations on stage and screen. richard III redux has to be one of the most vital and relevant.

Kaite O’Reilly has devoted a significant portion of her career as a playwright to interrogating the use of performers with disabilities in mainstream theatre, as well as providing atypical roles for them in her own work. Amongst them was Sara Beer’s comic contribution to euthanasia drama Cosy in 2016, Beer having returned to Wales relatively recently, having spent several years working with Graeae Theatre Company.

Examination of Richard’s remains confirmed that he was affected by scoliosis and thus bore some physical resemblance to Laurence Olivier’s classic, hump-backed depiction. Beer is affected by the same condition, and amongst the more painful moments in richard III redux are her memories of spine-straightening treatment for her condition (e.g. the Milwaukee brace) and of being referred to as “Quasimodo” by schoolmates in Pembrokeshire.

The thrust of the show is that actress Sara Beer has been offered (or possibly might be, at some point) the role of the scheming, warlike, child-murdering Richard Plantaganet and sets out, as part of the actor’s process, to research not only the real Richard, but also the many great actors who have taken on the role, starting with David Garrick, as painted by Hogarth in 1745.

The text plays with 18th century philosopher Denis Diderot’s contention that all acting is a form of self-deformation, using the fictionalised Richard as one of the most historically high-profile instances of an actor being compelled to adopt a “twisted” body in order to suggest a twisted mind.

Beer and O’Reilly (who is also in charge of the live captioning) have particular fun with Antony Sher’s The Year Of The King, his fascinating account of taking on the role which made him famous in the 1980s. Beer decides to follow his example by shadowing her physical opposite—in her case, a 6 foot 4 inch rugby-player—before abandoning this line of enquiry as a false start.

The show takes place on a raised platform (a minimal set designed by Deryn Tudor, who is also responsible for the subtle costuming), upon which Beer sits in an armchair, supping from a tea-cup, in between wandering the stage, reminiscing about memorising chunks of Shakespeare at her grandmother’s house, discussing her teenage aspirations to act (and being roundly discouraged by drama schools) and lecturing us on her quest to discover “her” Richard.

Much use is made of video inserts (filmed by Paul Whittaker), in which Beer makes facetious phonecalls to Phillippa Langley (the historian who was largely responsible for the discovery of Richard’s body), takes part in Actor’s Studio-style interviews (her pompous interlocutor played by director Phillip Zarrilli), and retraces the steps of Henry Tudor from West Wales to the Battle of Bosworth Field, where he defeated Richard III, thereby becoming Henry VII (the first and last—to date—Welsh King Of England).

We learn that Richard wasn’t so bad after all (something of a reformer), and that the assassination of his character was politically motivated. Still, O’Reilly’s use of Shakespeare’s language points up its seductive effectiveness in conveying evil; and the production’s use of historic “crookback” imagery, although critical, highlights its potency.

More poignant, though, is Beer’s pointing out of the variety of acting roles for which her physical appearance makes her unsuitable in the eyes of casting directors—including, ironically, Richard III. Indeed, the show is a significantly creativity-oriented contribution to the ongoing debate over diversity and representation in theatre.

Most importantly, richard iii redux or Sara Beer [is/not] richard iii is a bold, informative, occasionally traumatic, and irreverently amusing 70 minutes of theatre. One hopes that its life will continue beyond the current Welsh tour.

Reviewer: Othniel Smith