The Theatreguide.London Reviews
For the Archive we file reviews of several past productions of Shakespeare's Richard III together. Scroll down for the one you want, compare or just browse.
RSC 2001 - RSC 2008 - Propeller 2011 - Old Vic 2011 - Trafalgar 2014 - Almeida 2016 - Arcola 2017
Young Vic Spring 2001
Richard III is a fun play. The bad guy is so clever, so witty, so audacious, so good at being bad, that watching the progress of his villainy is a delightful vacation from our more moral selves. And the bad guy almost gets away with it, going from triumph to triumph until nemesis finally catches up to him.
The pleasures are multiplied if you have also seen the RSC's accompanying productions of the three Henry VI plays to which this is a sequel. Not only will you know all the background, but you will have the pleasure of watching performers who have developed their characterizations over the larger arc.
(Those seeing only Richard III might not even notice the silent figures who wander through several key scenes; they're a director's interpolation, the ghosts of characters from the preceding plays, and for those who have seen the whole series, they carry bushels of emotional associations.)
This is true even though this is not one of the great productions of the play; indeed, it comes as a bit of an anticlimax after the Henry trilogy. The problem lies, as it must, in the Richard. Aiden McArdle has much of Richard's wit and infectious self-delight, but the mesmerising satanic energy essential to the character is beyond his scope. This Richard simply isn't enough of a monster to seem like an irresistible force threatening the moral fabric of the cosmos. He isn't even particularly strong in his interaction with others.
The famous wooing of Lady Anne is an example. As a demonstration of Richard's power, Shakespeare has him make love to the widow of a man he killed, and succeed. But Aislin McGuckin's rather phlegmatic Anne gives no indication of being overpowered by his energy or magnetism or sexuality. She resists his blandishments and only seems to bend so far as to agree to hear him further. Much the same is true of the parallel scene with Elizabeth (Elaine Pyke), who actually dominates their big scene together before inexplicably caving in at the end.
One problem is that McArdle affects the whining, self-depreciating manner of a Jewish comedian. A colleague commented that he was impersonating Ron Moody's Fagin, and threatened to break into a chorus of "You've got to pick a pocket or two" at any moment. For me, a come-and-go effeminacy to his Richard raised unfortunate memories of Richard Dreyfuss in The Goodbye Girl; combined with the Yiddish inflections, it suggested Joan Rivers. And I'm sorry - be it Moody, Dreyfuss or Rivers, that characterization just is not scary enough to be a Richard.
There are some strong performances. Fiona Bell's Margaret, a holdover from the Henry plays, is now a full-blown madwoman, carting her son's bones around in a sack and savouring the taste of her curses before spitting them out. Deirdra Morris is a dignified Duchess and Elaine Pyke a strong Elizabeth; the scene in which they turn to Margaret to be schooled in cursing Richard is the play's most chilling. Richard Cordery is a strong presence as Buckingham, and Rhashan Stone is acceptable if not special as Clarence.
I should stress that the play itself is so good that even a less-than-ideal production can carry the day. I have no doubt that someone seeing the play for the first time, with no sense of what is missing, would enjoy it. And I unreservedly applaud the RSC for their ambitious project of doing all eight of Shakespeare's Richard/Henry plays in a single season. If the final play of the cycle proves to be the weakest, it is being measured by the very high standard of the others.
Roundhouse Spring 2008
Michael Boyd's admirable and exciting project of the Royal Shakespeare Company doing all eight Shakespearean history plays together with the same group of actors ends, alas, with a bit of a whimper rather than a bang.
Richard III is likely to be the most popular of the eight plays, and should be the easiest to do well. But some directorial decisions work against it. It doesn't fail - it's too good a play for anyone to completely mess up - but it is far from being as successful as it should.
One directorial error will particularly disturb those who come to this play from the earlier ones in the cycle.
One of the major strengths of this project, after all, has been the opportunity to follow the larger arc of the stories that transcend individual plays - to see, for example, how the forceful Queen Margaret of the Henry VI plays becomes the half-mad harridan of this one or, for that matter, to see the young Richard before he becomes the hero of his own play.
And director Boyd emphasised that continuity by casting the same actors in the roles from play to play, and by bringing back earlier characters as silent ghosts to haunt the later action.
But, while all the other plays in the cycle were done in period, Richard III is abruptly transformed into modern dress. The same actor we saw yesterday as the young Richard in doublet and hose is now wearing a suit; the battles that were fought with swords are replaced by commandos with machine guns.
Whatever 'relevance' or 'immediacy' the director and designer Tom Piper thought the change would bring is outweighed by the damage done to the unity and continuity of the whole.
But even for those who haven't been to the other plays, surely the imagined benefits of modern dress have long since been proven illusionary.
You don't have to be a purist to feel the gap when people talk of swords and brandish pistols, when Richard's foes are executed Mafia-style with a silenced gunshot to the back of the head, when his troops descend from a heard-but-not-seen helicopter overhead or when proof that the princes in the Tower are dead comes in the killer's digital camera.
And when the nightmare scene finds Richard writhing about in his Marks and Spencer underpants, something of the majesty and power of Shakespeare's drama has surely been lost.
The other serious directorial error lies in the characterisation of Richard. You can see in my review of the Henry VI plays that I had my doubts about Jonathan Slinger's portrayal of the young Richard as a bit of a buffoon and wondered then how it would carry into this play.
Well, the answer is very badly. Slinger continues to present Richard as comically clumsy and effeminate. His limp is a girlish skip, his laugh like the internalised giggle of a drunk, his attempts at jokes fall flat as often as not.
Yes, Richard does have a comic side, but it is the mordant wit of a superior malevolent intellect, not the inept clowning of a dolt. There is malevolence aplenty in this Richard, but there is no real menace - and without that, there is no play.
There isn't even much sense of Richard's power. The famous scene of wooing the Lady Anne despite her murderous hatred gives no evidence of his magnetism or sexual power. Hannah Barrie makes Anne just seem worn out by his relentlessness so she stops fighting, not won over in any way.
And in the parallel scene later with Queen Elizabeth, Ann Ogbomo makes her clearly the stronger fighter, so we don't believe for a moment that he wins.
It is partly because Richard is so weak that Richard Cordery (surely the unsung hero of the entire cycle, scoring in all his roles) makes Buckingham seem more than ever the dominant partner in their plotting or that Lex Shrapnel can make such an impression as Henry Tudor, who doesn't even appear until the last act.
Katy Stephens carries some of the strength we saw in the younger Margaret into her scenes of mad cursing here, and Maureen Beattie easily holds the moral high ground as Richard's mother.
But, while I would normally recommend any production of Richard III to a Shakespearean neophyte, this is one you can comfortably skip.
Hampstead Theatre Summer 2011 and touring
Under Ed Hall's skilled direction the all-male Propeller company does what it does best – a clear, fast-moving production based on a solid interpretation, with strong acting and some memorably powerful sequences. There are a couple of silly moments, but they're more than balanced by the fresh touches that work brilliantly.
The play opens, on a set that suggests an abattoir or morgue, with the cast in butcher's smocks and white face masks that make them look like Leatherface in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
A chainsaw will appear before the interval, one of several tools used in bringing the play's many killings onstage, because this is a production that does not shrink from the fact that Richard of Gloucester carves a very bloody path toward the throne and continues to kill in order to stay there.
In addition to the killings Shakespeare wrote, director Hall has Richard dispatch Clarence's murderers, Lady Anne and a couple more with his own hands.
Hall and actor Richard Clothier make this the key to the character and the play – that Richard is a totally conscienceless killer, an irresistible force marching through the English nobility.
Clothier sacrifices some of the dark humour and self-delight others have brought to the role, but it's an acceptable trade-off, though making Richard's collapse toward the end of the play understandable is a little more difficult.
And for once this is not a one-man show, as there are several strong performances around Clothier's.
Instead of the effete born-victim most actors find in Clarence, John Dougall gives him the strength and courage to stand up against his murderers with enough force that he almost changes history.
If Jon Trenchard's Lady Anne barely registers, Dominic Tighe's Queen Elizabeth is a formidable antagonist to Richard, and Tony Bell invests Queen Margaret's curses with all the force of heavenly nemesis.
(It should go without saying that there isn't a hint of camp in any of the female characters and, as is always the case with Propeller, you quickly forget or ignore the gender of the actor in the gown.)
There are a couple of things that don't work. Turning Clarence's murderers into a music hall comedy act may have sounded clever in theory, but it's tiresome in practice, and someone should have assured Ed Hall that Shakespeare is a strong enough writer that he didn't need the insertion of a rap sequence.
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Old Vic Theatre Summer 2011
This is museum Shakespeare. There is very little actually wrong with the production. It has a movie star at its centre, the rest of the cast is generally at least adequate, and there are some interesting directorial and design touches.
And it is almost totally lifeless.
This is the sort of production that confirms people's suspicions that the only reason to see Shakespeare is to watch a star, that anything a star does in Shakespeare is by definition Grand Acting, and that the rest is supposed to be dull and hard to follow.
(I can't help suspecting that director Sam Mendes and designer Tom Piper may share that last prejudice, since they project what amount to chapter titles before each scene, as if we needed them to keep up with the plot.)
Few among the supporting cast are able to create characters, so that even in modern dress there isn't much of a reality there – just a parade of people coming on, making speeches at each other, and dying off without us particularly caring.
Kevin Spacey's portrayal of Richard is almost entirely external – a bit of Uriah Heep grovelling here, a flash of anger there, and general shouting throughout, as if volume alone indicated passion or dedication.
What is particularly missing is Richard's mordant wit and delight in his own villainy, qualities you would have thought this particular actor could have brought to the role without difficulty, and qualities that could have brought the performance and the production alive more consistently.
Indeed, the absence is so striking that the only explanation is that actor and director deliberately chose to suppress any familiar Spacey-isms. So we end up with an actor of certain strengths not employing those strengths, and giving a generic performance a dozen lesser actors could have done.
There are a couple of exceptions, moments that hint at the special power we would have hoped Spacey would bring. In the middle of the otherwise uninteresting Lady Anne scene, Spacey twice lets loose some raw sexual energy that Annabel Scholey as Anne visibly wilts under, but they're instant flashes that you could miss if you blinked.
And in the later parallel scene with Queen Elizabeth, Hayden Gwynne is so strong that you can watch the actress forcing Spacey to raise his game to match her.
One self-indulgence Spacey does allow himself is treating the occasional modern-sounding line like an ad lib, for an easy laugh, and staging one whole scene as a projection on a large screen seems as much a sop to the actor's ego as anything else.
Hayden Gwynne is as impressive throughout as the barely-registering Annabel Scholey is not. Chuk Iwuji brings Buckingham alive as a very modern politician and spin doctor, and Maureen Anderman has strong moments as the Duchess.
Gemma Jones as Margaret is dressed as a bag lady and directed to be as over-the-top mad as Madame Arcati, but she fights past both handicaps to give frightening power to her curses. (One directorial innovation, bringing Margaret silently onstage to literally cross off each of Richard's victims as her curses are fulfilled, is an effective way of reminding us that Richard is the tool of larger forces.)
Along with the projections, Tom Piper's set has more doors than a French farce, a curiosity that resonates only when Margaret's silent score-keeping gives them the effect of progressively-filling coffins.
The production is sold out, and there is a long queue for returns each night. It would be nice if those who get in could win more for their efforts than this adequate-and-no-more-than-that production.
Trafalgar Studios Summer 2014
Richard The Nerd?
Audaciously, actor Martin Freeman and director Jamie Lloyd have chosen to play Shakespeare's crookback king not as a monster of malevolent energy but as a little bird-like man who partly is and partly pretends to be bashful, physically awkward and socially inept.
It's a startling choice, and works far better than you might guess, reminding us that evil that comes in seemingly innocuous form is particularly dangerous.
Freeman has clearly modelled his characterisation, at least externally, on comedian Lee Evans (with touches of Norman Wisdom). There's the same loping walk, the seeming lack of control over his limbs, the abrupt bird-like movements of his head, the tendency to look off to the upper right rather than directly at others, the incongruously flashed and slightly creepy smile, the doubletakes of surprise at what he hears coming out of his mouth.
That some of this is used by the character for effect is clear in the way he can exaggerate it when needed; that much of it is part of the character is evident when he can never turn it all off, even when alone.
The effect is of a nervous and nerdy little bookkeeper, and what is particularly clear is that, however little or much of it is innate, the ambitious little man knows how to use it to his advantage.
In the early scenes no one can imagine him a threat, Lady Anne is won over by the shy awkwardness she can only read as sincerity, and as late as the scene in which he talks Queen Elizabeth into letting him marry her daughter his threats come across to her as wheedling pleas.
Richard III as Uriah Heep – Dickens would have recognised this characterisation and the truth about the vindictiveness of little men that it dramatises. It is probably not Shakespeare's vision of Richard – the play's language stresses his almost supernatural evil – but it is both psychologically sound and theatrically fascinating.
Little in the rest of the evening lives up to this level, and the best that can be said of most of it is that it is competent.
The modern dress production is set in the open-plan office of a bureaucratic government, with messages received by telephone and teletype, planted bugs eavesdropping on private conversations, and all public speeches (including the first, pleasant half of Richard's 'Now is the winter of our discontent') spoken into microphones for posterity.
This enhances or illuminates the play absolutely not at all. But, except for the occasional awkwardness of transplanting scenes set elsewhere onto this location, it's less obtrusive than modern dress too often is – at least there are no cases of people speaking of swords while brandishing rifles.
Jo Stone-Fewings plays Buckingham as a Sir Humphrey-ish civil servant, all emotionless efficiency, and both Mark Meadows as Clarence and Lauren O'Neil as Anne are attractively stronger than usual, each given the opportunity to fight bravely for their lives before dying.
As Margaret Maggie Steed is properly intimidating in her first cursing scene, but the director has the character rapidly age and decay as the play progresses so that she loses all power to stand upright, much less gloat at her enemies' falls.
The text is intelligently trimmed, with some characters combined (e.g. Clarence's jailer becomes one of the murderers) and scenes re-arranged (e.g., some of the ghosts are moved from Richard's nightmare onto the battlefield).
The presence of a TV and movie star will, admirably, bring in a lot of people new to the play. It might be nice if they encountered a production generally stronger than this one, but they will undoubtedly be captured by the central characterisation and performance.
And it may well be that those who have seen the play before will find this original image of Richard especially exciting.
Almeida Theatre Summer 2016
Crisp, clear and fast-moving (even at over three hours) this Richard III from director Rupert Gould and actor Ralpn Fiennes avoids flashiness and willingly sacrifices some of the larger-than-life satanic power others have found in Shakespeare's villain, to present the convincing and harrowing portrait of a thoroughly human-sized villain who just happens to be very, very good at what he does.
From the moment that Fiennes steps forward with Shakespeare's famous opening soliloquy, we are in the calm and confident presence of a businesslike plotter who has his evil plan all worked out and knows without a hint of self-questioning that he is smart and determined enough to pull it off.
And while the first half of the play shows Richard marching smoothly forward to success it also offers hints at the nature and cause of his fall.
Never having considered the possibility of failure, this Richard is unprepared for setbacks when they come, and the minute he does not have a clear and confident vision of his next step forward, he is doomed.
Director Gould has edited the text and rearranged scenes to keep the focus on Richard from the start, and he and designer Hildegard Bechtler avoid any distractions, leaving the stage largely bare and dressing everyone in black.
(The coronation scene, with its startling flashes of gold and colour, feels almost painfully out of place, and one effective touch of symbolism – adding a skull to a sort of display cabinet at the rear of the stage each time one of Richard's victims falls – can't escape the slight taint of directorial self-indulgence.)
As an actor Ralph Fiennes carries an unstrained masculinity and controlled energy that make a quietly confident and almost matter-of-fact Richard as impressive and mesmerising as any flashier interpretations might be. And in the intimate setting of the Almeida the actor can project and communicate his character with subtle inflections and gestures.
Reducing the volume – the noise level – of the play also allows the other actors to underplay characters too often lost in overplaying. Vanessa Redgrave's Margaret is no wicked witch of the west, but a bitter and grieving old woman who says what she has to say and goes, leaving her curses to linger in the air behind her.
Joanna Vanderham need search for nothing more in Lady Anne than a woman who actually believes Richard's protestations of repentance and love, and who lives to regret her misjudgement.
Finbar Lynch makes Buckingham a born right-hand-man proud of the efficiency and professional expertise with which he does his work, and Susan Engel invests the Duchess of York with the quiet dignity of a mother unhappy in her son.
No one should be allowed to go through life without seeing Laurence Olivier's film of Richard III. But alongside it, and perhaps just as necessary, is this production's revelation that the play doesn't need a lot of flash and filigree.
Ralph Fiennes' cool and quiet Richard doesn't leap out to demand our attention. But he gets it and holds it nonetheless, illuminating the play in revelatory ways.
Arcola Theatre Spring 2017
Greg Hicks has a great sneer.
Second only to the late Alan Rickman, Hicks could sneer for Britain if it were an Olympic event. And sneering is a big part of what Shakespeare's Richard does.
Hicks is also an excellent speaker of verse, and has a strong sense of where the humour lies, finding every possible wry joke in the text.
The only thing missing in his Richard is the man's delight in his own villainy, the sense that he's having real fun being so nasty. And that gap keeps Greg Hicks's excellent Richard from being one of the greats.
For this modern dress production, thankfully free of other anachronisms that too often tempt directors, like rifles and cell phones, director Mehmet Ergan and dramaturgs Jack Gamble and Jonathan Powell have intelligently clarified and trimmed the text, cutting or combining some minor characters and keeping the storyline clear and the play moving forward.
Hicks and designer Anthony Lamble have chosen an original shape for Richard, with no humpback, but a hunched-over posture driven by the chain by which he lifts and moves his dead left leg. Not since Antony Sher's crutches three decades ago have I seen a Richard who so resembled the spider everyone calls him.
But that lack of self-love and self-entertainment does limit Hicks's portayal, leaving us with the glummest Richard I've ever encountered, and depriving us of the confusion and naughty delight of actually enjoying watching him murder everyone who stands between him and the throne (and a few more, just because they're there).
So, despite being onstage almost continuously, Hicks doesn't completely dominate the play as some other Richards have. And that's not entirely a bad thing, since it leaves more room for others to make an impression.
If Georgina Rich's Anne is the cipher the character almost always is, Jane Bertish is one of the strongest Queen Margarets I've ever encountered.
Margaret has two big scenes, one in which she curses everyone in sight and one in which she catalogues her griefs, and Bertish makes the first as deeply harrowing as the second is deeply moving.
Peter Guinness makes Buckingham a confident schemer who discovers too late that he has been out of his depth from the beginning, and Matthew Sim as Catesby creates an ominous presence largely by being calmly present every time something bad happens.
A mixed bag, then, this Richard III has a lot to recommend it but remains crippled by the absence of that one essential and sorely missed element.
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