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Richard III

William Shakespeare
RSC at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle
(2003)

The lights go down on a bare stage (which some poor young actor has been sweeping continually since the half!) and a set of false house tabs fly in. There is a moment's pause and Richard, Duke of Gloucester, dressed in a fashion which irresistibly reminded me of the men in the finale of A Chorus Line, steps through them into a spotlight. He launches into the famous "Now is the winter of our discontent" speech. Moments later I lean towards my companion and whisper, "Joel Gray". She nods in agreement. Henry Goodman makes exactly the sort of contact with the audience which made me feel we were suddenly in the KitKat Club.

He strips off the formal clothes to reveal the outfit he is to wear for the rest of the show, an outfit which draws attention to rather than conceals Richard's deformities.

He reaches the line "that dogs do bark at me", and a dog barks. Richard whips out a concealed blade from his walking stick, goes to the side of the stage, stabs at something just out of sight, then cleans blood from the blade. We don't hear the dog again.

Very comic, yes, but Goodman's staring eyes chill us as we laugh. A bit like Mr Punch, really, to whom he had an uncanny resemblance at time.

It's all very melodramatic, but that's Richard III, the most melodramatic of all the great plays.

It really is a bravura performance from Goodman. His Richard is a monster, physically and morally, evil to the core and delighting in it - and, from the audience point of view - an absolute joy! But Goodman almost meets his match in Sheila Reid's Queen Margaret. She too is a figure straight from melodrama: with a shock of wild white hair and a stick which she waves around with great abandon, wearing her late husband's bloodstained tunic, she revels in all that the part offers - and in her hands it offers a great deal.

At the other end of the scale, there is the hero, Richmond (Bradley Freegard). Sporting an educated Welsh accent (none of the over-the-top "look you, boyo" rubbish here!), he is the perfect melodrama hero, everything that is noble and of good report, and good-looking with it.

Regrettably there is no heroine, no Maria Marten figure. Lisa Stevenson's Lady Anne was much too underplayed. The scene in which Richard woos and wins her has always, to me, been pretty unbelievable but the way in which the two spark off each other through clever word-play makes up for it, but not here. It was, I fear, a non-event, but the only one in the play.

I've always found Queen Elizabeth an unsympathetic character, and certainly in the scenes before the death of Edward IV she was in this production too, but Maureen Beattie brought her to powerful life in the scene in which Richard tells her he is going to marry her daughter, so that we ended up feeling great sympathy and admiration for her ability to stand up to this monster.

As for the rest of the cast - in particular the smarmy, self-assured Hastings (Michael Hadley), the cunning Buckingham with his Warwick the Kingmaker ambitions (Malcolm Sinclair), and the one and only Rivers ever to make a real impression on this reviewer (John Killoran) - they provided superb support.

The costumes are Victorian, in keeping with the style of playing, and they, the simple but effective set (by Anthony Lamble), which made the full stage area, right up to the back wall, usable, the lighting (Tim Mitchell) and the subtle soundscape of Martin Slavin, all combined to make this one of the best productions of Richard III I have ever seen - and I have seen many!

One sometimes gets the impression that directors of Shakespeare, even at the RSC, feel the need to be different, to use an off-the-wall approach so as to stamp their personality on the play, and often not only do they fail abysmally but they all but destroy the play in the process. Congratulations, therefore, to Sean Holmes who remains faithful to the play and brings it to superb life, and that is not an easy thing to do with a play which is performed as much as Richard III and over which hovers the shadow of the Olivier film which turned the main character in to a cliché!

Reviewer: Peter Lathan