Review: Richard III. RSC Stratford upon Avon

With Richard III, Gregory Doran brings to a dark and bloody conclusion the trilogy of Henry VI plays. An intense and intimate psychological examination of a corrupted individual, Shakespeare’s Richard is a disturbed and disassociated human, a creation in part due to his ill-treatment, by both family and society because of his disability. In casting Arthur Hughes, the first disabled actor to play the role at the RSC, there is a recognition of the lived experience of disability and its impact on the individual.

Arthur Hughes gives a blistering performance as the brutal ‘hell-hound’, a psychopath whose tyranny finds no resistance. Like his heraldic symbol, the Boar, he is an untamed, savage beast hunting down his next victim, in the pursuit of recognition and power. The brilliance of this portrayal is in our being seduced into admiring his laser-like focus, his bravado, and his disregard for all natural constraints. He is funny – laugh-out-loud funny – and we gasp at his audacity. 

The fascination continues with Richard’s seduction of Lady Anne (Rosie Sheehy), which is  mesmerising in its brutality and exploitation. He has murdered her young husband and father-in-law, and Sheehy’s stunning performance of the rage this engenders is raw and guttural. But through this armour of hatred and resentment, Richard finds a tiny chink of vulnerability, pours honeyed words upon her and finally convinces her of his adoration and contrition. In her susceptible state, she is captivated by him, frozen in fear and loneliness. This dazzling scene alone commends the whole production.

Richard’s actions are so far removed from the norm, that even his closest allies cannot grasp the magnitude of them, and his more fearful, naïve and self-serving courtiers offer no challenge to his barbarity. Jamie Wilkes as Buckingham, is persuasive and manipulative, a powerful presence. The naïve George, Duke of Clarence, is played with enormous sensitivity and expression by Ben Hall. Micah Balfour as Lord Hastings is doggedly loyal and assured, until the scales are ripped from his eyes. All a timely reminder of the danger of standing by and believing all will be well.

Women in Shakespeare’s history plays often fare badly, a reflection of their status being attached solely to their worth as wife or mother, producers of heirs. And so here too, with Queen Elizabeth (Kirsty Bushall) who has no ability or resources to oppose Richard, once her husband is dead. Bushall is heart-breaking in her physical restlessness and emotional outpourings. Claire Benedict as the Duchess of York, Richard’s mother, is both achingly maternal and visceral in her rejection of him. But these female characters are given stage space and time by Shakespeare, and often, all together, in support of one another. Minnie Gale returns as Queen Margaret, having morphed from teenage bride to murderous soldier to prophesying visionary. Gale’s commitment to the truth of each of these stages of Margaret’s life is phenomenal and she is a scene-stealer every time.

Designer Stephen Brimson Lewis has created a monolithic cenotaph which dominates the stage, a literal and metaphorical reminder of the devastating wars in Henry VI and War of the Roses. Saturated in rusty, blood-red and offset by steely blue tones, the staging creates an oppressive atmosphere, heighted by the jewel-like tones of the royal costumes, which degrade to blacks and greys as more and more murders take place and colour and life is stripped from the court.  When Richard finally takes the throne, his courtiers are in muted tones, and by contrast, his glittering crown and grandiose robes make him look like a child in a dressing-up costume, out of place.

Lighting by Matt Daw contrasts flat floodlighting in the court with intimate torchlight, and the video elements by Leo Flint make brilliant use of the cenotaph to heighten drama and link back to the Henrys.  The live music, by Paul Englishby, underlines every mood, from the throbbing cellos and sounding trumpets of the court, to the pure, high notes of a choirboy, hinting at the lost piety of King Henry VI. 

In the final scene, where chilling ghosts haunt Richard on the night before battle, and even on the  battle-field itself, a turquoise miasma descends, juxtaposed with blood-suffused skeletal robes.  The writhing, expressive movements of the ghosts are skilfully transformed to create a dazzling and surreal final act. Sian Williams movement and the haunting, breathy sound by Claire Window make this a stunning, painterly finale.

Richard III is ‘subtle, sly and bloody’. Directed with heart and an unflinching exactitude by Gregory Doran and Associate Director Aaron Parsons, it is a bold and brilliant production. Hughes presents a Richard at once compelling and repulsive in his inhumanity, but who also authentically reflects the journey of marginalisation experienced by those who are seen as ‘other’. With vicious comedy, the truth of oppression is revealed and acts as a warning to us all.


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