Richard III

William Shakespeare
Hiraeth Artistic Productions
Upstairs at the Gatehouse

Josh Jefferies as Richmond Credit: Adam Trigg
Josh Jefferies as Rivers and Gemma Barrett as Queen Elizabeth Credit: Adam Trigg
David McLaughlin as Richard III Credit: Adam Trigg

This is a bold and violent production that sets a cracking pace. Aided by heavy cutting, it packs Shakespeare’s history of Richard Crookback’s climb to power into just two hours and a quarter including interval.

Director Zoë Ford and her designer Nadia Malik have staged it with idiosyncratic imagination. Jack Weir’s lighting uses ultraviolet strobes and Erin Witton’s sound design has a booming disco beat that sometimes drowns speech, though even without that competition lines are often shouted.

A simple set presents a red and golden crown upon a dais, a constant reminder that this play is all about gaining royal power. Behind, a yellow wall frescoed with moths is heavily stained by water damage, a reminder of the state of England. Moths seem to have become the symbol of the family of York: huge ones decorate other panels, small version decorate some of the women’s hair.

Eclectic costumes, matted dreadlocks and bare flesh give a Mad Max feel with men in biker leather and later brocaded nineteenth-century red court dress, the women in Flintstone furs or bordello frocks; a jewelled royal crown is fronted by a goat skull complete with horns, its symbolism to me obscure, but all contributing to an image of the violence that permeates the play.

That violence explodes onto the stage from the beginning. A stylised mime of conflict and murder crowns Edward IV and leads into part of the last scene of Henry VI (Part 3). Only then comes Richard of Gloucester’s speech to the audience that usually opens the play.

David McLaughlin’s Richard is no hunchbacked monster, though one shoulder may be slightly higher than the other. Not for a minute do you question how he could be so handy with a sword. But deformity there is, strapped in by leather body belts and corseting, a deformity to match his malignity of mind.

This is a strong performance but too much in one key. There is little evidence of the charisma and perverse attraction that helps him get his way and words come out sometimes with more force than meaning, placing stresses that don’t match the sense of statements.

In this he’s not alone: this production is far more interested in physical effect than language. Interestingly it makes all these Yorkists northerners but too little thought has gone into what they are actually saying, with most vocal effort exerted in winding up dramatic momentum.

The physical invention provides some graphic killings and a nightmare for Richard where he creates his own ghosts, but drawn-out peeing into a bucket with heavy exhalations is overdone as a way of marking Clarence’s imprisonment and replacing the famous butt of Malmsey with a pail of piss seems heavy-handed.

The final battle is cut down to a hand-to-hand fight between Josh Jefferies’s Richmond and Richard. It is strikingly performed, first sheer brawn and then drawn weapons, it becomes the climax of the play with all lines cut after the King’s cry of “My kingdom for a horse!”, just leaving Richmond to symbolically claim the throne.

The bare bones of the plot survive, but this is a Manga version that lacks the meat of Shakespeare’s drama, though there is lots of sound and fury. Through the shouting, some moments register strongly. There is a cleverly thought out, playful and knowing presentation of young Prince Edward from Mary Cormack and Gemma Barrett is particularly effective in the scene where her Queen Elizabeth confronts Richard.

All this cast, given time to think and made to do so, both in rehearsal and in performance, could probably have delivered much more.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton