Richard III

William Shakespeare
Royal Shakespeare Company
Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

Jonjo O’Neill as Richard III Credit: Hugo Glendinning
Pippa Nixon as Lady Anne Credit: Hugo Glendinning
Jonjo O’Neill as Richard III and Alex Waldmann as Sir Catesby Credit: Hugo Glendinning

A bare Swan Theatre stage. High above, musicians sit, their cello and viola accompaniment accommodating the action below with Hollywood movie stealth. The backdrop, a metallized sheet that iridises with the blood of battle or the storm clouds of dissent. A single off-centre opening, like an enormous wound, offers immediate entry to the forestage drama. Ti Green’s set complements the focused clarity of this excellent production.

Into this world steps Jonjo O’Neill as Richard, Duke of Gloucester. No longer a stock villain, this Richard is a sensual, sexual predatory beast whose tangible charm and charisma have unexpectedly immediate effects on the young members of the audience. Imagine the love-child of Ian Dury crossed with the comic innocence of Norman Wisdom. O’Neill’s Richard has the sexuality of naughtiness in abundance.

This is no hobbling monster, but an active, militaristic misfit whose physicality (the ubiquitous hunched back, withered left hand and leather calipered right leg) are markers of uniqueness. Obnoxious as Richard’s seduction of Lady Anne undoubtedly is, there is absolute belief in the sexual power of this twisted reprobate. Pippa Nixon’s Lady Anne might be nauseated by her suitor’s blackened teeth. His embrace, though, ignites a passion fired by hatred that appears unquenchable in a woman so recently bereaved by the death of her husband.

A remarkable production this undoubtedly is. At well over three-and-a-quarter hours, the Swan’s Richard III could seem a marathon were it not for the pace of Roxana Silbert’s excellent direction, and the performance by the play’s central character. With O’Neill setting the bar so high, several lesser characters find it hard to match his leaps of dramatic faith. Even so, the result is an unforgettable theatrical experience, capped by convincing sword fights and battle scenes that spark off the Swan stage.

Apart from O’Neill’s splendid Richard, the most exciting performance of the play comes from the fiery form of Paola Dionisotti. As mad Margaret, the widow of Henry VI, Dionisotti commands the stage. Like a maddened Black Widow spider, Margaret taunts and curses, her body wracked as the spirits of the dead torture her very soul. Moments of intense cogency juxtaposed by manic railing make this Margaret as dangerous as her adversary Richard is sexy. An inspired performance that will haunt the Swan Theatre for many years to come.

Silbert offers a Richard III that rewrites the theatrical history of this Shakespeare villain. Gone is the grotesque monster. In his place is the active, aggressive, sexual and manipulative outsider whose seeming innocence masks the true nature of his hatred and ambition. Richard III as pariah turned paralympian. What better way to celebrate the challenge of alternative physicality in this, the 2012 Olympic year.

Reviewer: Kevin Quarmby

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