Riverside Studios, Hammersmith
Following the not-so-distant triumph of the RSC's The Histories season, where Richard III was performed with a full back-story provided by the Henry trilogy, it is almost a relief to find that the play can still be a successful stand-alone, even if Richard's character must necessarily seem a bit of a one-dimensional tyrant.
Gratitude, then, to Love&Madness (founded by Artistic Director and actor Neil Sheppeck), a company that gives bold and new interpretations of classical works and, as part of their 'Desire&Destruction' season at the Riverside, provide a modern-dress Richard that makes the political machinations of the medieval court seem ever so close to our own world.
Director Ben Kidd and his team present a fast-paced and thoughtful production that remains largely faithful to the text that we know, particularly in Act 1. That Act 2 contains much new dialogue does not detract from a work that, in any case, is itself a fictional representation of a much-maligned monarch.
Some ingenious doubling allows this hard-working cast of nine to seem much bigger than it is: Gerard McDermott makes a convincing transition from doomed Clarence to equally doomed Lord Hastings, and it is a case of trebling for Jonathan Warde who gives individuality to courtly Rivers, murderous Tyrell, and a young Prince Edward replete with schoolboy jacket, soft drink and straw.
A playfulness with gender successfully introduces Sarah Bedi as a female Catesby, an efficient PA with red clip-board ever in hand as Yorkist plots are conceived; and allows Matthew Sim to grace the stage in grand-dame style as Margaret, embittered matriarch and usurped Queen. It is inspired casting that falls just the right side of male-drag to create a believable woman of mature years, cursing yet dignified.
It never fails to amaze me how some actors are able to make Elizabethan language trip off the tongue and Simon Yadoo, as a cigarette-smoking Buckingham, is a master. Neil Sheppeck is nicely bewildered as the house-of-cards collapses around his King Edward, and doubles in the saviour-persona of Richmond.
Sadie Frost, arguably the big name and big draw here, is a good ensemble player and looks gorgeous but her Lady Anne is somewhat petulant and the sexual spark between her and Richard - vital for understanding his ability to woo her - is missing.
Statuesque Candida Benson imbues Queen Elizabeth with an initial haughtiness, an increasing unease, and a final succumbing to crumpled grief in an interpretation that almost steals the show from Carl Prekopp's Richard - but not quite.
It is a memorable performance, Prekopp's pale face fitting for the morgue-like atmospherics of the auditorium, his twisted frame of a fragility that heightens his status as human powerhouse where exploding rage meets mendacious reflection. The actor never forgets to catch the eye of his audience: somehow, we are on his side.
A brave, new, and welcome addition to the cycle of Richard III productions.
Reviewer: Anita-Marguerite Butler