Richard III, Watermill Theatre Newbury, 21 April 2011
Propeller have always brought a pantomime element into their work. The all-male company’s USP of having men play female characters infuses their productions with a subversive comedic touch.
This undercurrent of comedy in their work burst to the surface and dominated their production of Richard III so that the violence was played for laughs.
This was the inevitable result of cross infection from the work they were doing on the second play in their season, The Comedy of Errors.
The set had a central discovery area covered with a plastic door curtain with two entrances either side. Two thin lattice towers stood at each side near the front and a flag pole with an England flag at its base was placed stage right behind one of the towers. Stage left sat a partly folded operating table. The floor was spotted with black spots reminiscent of congealed blood.
As people took their seats, the actors gradually appeared silently on stage clothed in white coats and wearing face masks leaving only their eyes visible. They carried surgical instruments in keeping with the vaguely field hospital theme of the set.
The cast scanned the auditorium with their beady eyes. This was intended to be menacing, but they were mostly ignored by the chatty audience.
The performance began with a chanted hymn as the England flag was raised. One of the actors stood centre stage in a white coat and, holding a large metal syringe aloft, flicked his finger at its invisible needle.
Enter Richard. The actor Richard Clothier is quite tall and he cut quite an imposing figure in his black leather outfit with integral hump. His right leg was in a calliper but he did not limp excessively. Deformity was chiefly indicated by his left arm stump which had a handy slot for attachments (mostly knives).
He looked like Rutger Hauer in Blade Runner but sounded more like Antony Head’s character Mr Gently Benevolent in Radio 4’s Bleak Expectations. This was pantomime villainy, extending later as far as a “muwha-ha-ha” laugh.
Richard began his soliloquy. There was even a nice bright light to cast a shadow enabling him to descant on his own deformity. The speech continued as far as line 31 after which we saw an interpolated party scene with King Edward and others including Clarence partying.
A camera tripod was placed in front of the revellers. The flash lit and the action froze as Richard entered and continued his speech about plots and “inductions dangerous”. He took a cigar from Clarence’s frozen hand, smoked it and flicked ash into Clarence’s wine glass before replacing the cigar in his grip.
The action unfroze and the scene continued. Clarence took a drink from his glass and began coughing. Richard stood next to Edward and whispered to him drawing his attention to Clarence. While Edward looked fixedly at Clarence, Richard swiftly poured poison into his glass.
After a brief absence, Edward returned and was sick into a bucket, indicating his failing health, which was then commented on as the action continued with scene 1.3.
Given the prominence of the female characters in Richard III, it was inherently interesting to see them portrayed by male actors. Tony Bell’s Queen Margaret was the stand-out performance of the afternoon. He managed to convey Margaret’s bitter resentment but also her innate dignity.
Richard, on the other hand, was anything but dignified. When accusing Margaret of glorying in the death of Rutland, he produced the “bloody clout” she had offered as a gruesome memento, and waved it in her face as a reminder of her own past misdeeds.
Margaret responded by cutting her hand with a knife and dripping blood into a bowl, which she then sprinkled on the recipients of her curses. Each curse was accompanied by metallic clangs as white-coated assistants banged their clubs on the scaffolding.
Ordering the text this way introduced us to the principal characters and background evens before continuing with the detail of Richard’s intrigues.
The action then reverted back to 1.1. We saw Clarence being escorted to the Tower, after which he was blinded with acid in the discovery space. The power of the acid was demonstrated by one of the torturers spilling a few drops on the ground to a loud hissing noise generated offstage.
Anne conveyed the body of Henry VI in one of the production’s trademark body bags, many more of which appeared later. Richard loped into view as she opened it to look at Henry’s bloody body.
Richard produced a bouquet of artificial flowers from inside his stump. This did more than anything else to underline the comic nature of the production.
Jon Trenchard’s Anne was tiny compared to Richard, which meant that his wooing of her was more physical overpowering than persuasion. Anne was, however, incapable of acting on his suggestion that she stab him with his dagger.
He forced a ring onto her finger. She studied it admiringly before stuttering out “To take is not to give” as an almost nonsensical excuse for her surrender. Richard then leant her back over the body bag in a final gesture of seductive triumph.
Richard gave orders for Henry’s corpse to be brought to his house in London causing the attendants to smile and laugh. They had clearly understood the implications of Richard assuming control of the situation.
He seemed quite pleased with his success and looked forward to commissioning tailors. He also commissioned murders to kill his brother Clarence, a sequence held over from the end of 1.3 which was acted earlier.
Continuing with 1.4 we saw the blinded Clarence in his cell recounting his dream. The murderers were played like two music hall comedians. The humour inherent in their jokey, inverted moral debate and their determination to resist the temptation to show mercy became a self-consciously stylised performance with them tipping their hats off and on.
When preparing to execute Clarence, one held him still while the other cued up a club and prepared to knock his head clean off his shoulders, taking very large back swings and then bringing the club forward slowly to the point of impact, checking his swing like a golfer.
The fact that Clarence was blind and could not see any of this made it funnier. But his blindness also cemented a neat analogy with another famous scene in Shakespeare. Clarence told the murderers to seek out Richard, confident that his brother would help. But the murderers took great delight in telling him “’Tis he that sends us to destroy you here.”
With Clarence blind, this moment was thus an exact parallel of the scene in Lear where the sightless Gloucester calls on his son Edmund to help him, only to be told to his dismay that Edmund was in fact his betrayer.
After the pair stabbed Clarence and then pierced through his eye socket with a drill, the 2nd Murderer expressed his repentance at the deed just as Richard entered. On hearing this disobedience, Richard killed the 2nd Murderer instantly and also after a short delay his more willing companion.
There was an awful lot of blood in this production. In the pause before the start of 2.1 the principal characters in the scene formed a line at the front of the stage and each bared a forearm.
There was a moment of comedy here as each person used their free hand to tap their arms to stimulate the flow of blood to the surface, something which Richard, with his stump, was unable to do. He muttered under his breath at the others.
A medical orderly used a large syringe to extract blood from each arm, squirting its load into individual vials that the characters then carried round with them like cocktails at a diplomatic reception.
Edward appeared ill, as required by the stage directions. And because we had seen his behaviour earlier, we could understand why.
As words of reconciliation were exchanged, the characters stood in pairs, swapped vials and drank each other’s blood. This gave new meaning to 2.1.41 where King Edward referred to the vow offered to him as “a pleasing cordial”.
Richard was cringeworthy in his fake sincerity, but there was too much of the Gently Benevolent about him. He became more interesting when, after telling Edward that the countermand had come too late to save Clarence, he brought in the body bag containing his brother’s corpse and dumped it on the ground. Edward took off his crown, placing it on the bag as he examined the body. When Edward’s back was turned, Richard’s hand glided towards the crown as if magnetically attracted to it, but withdrew when Edward’s attention refocused.
As a parting gesture, Richard gave Clarence’s body bag a swift kick as he passed by on the way out.
Another interpolated scene showed Edward’s death. He was simply wheeled into the centre of the stage on the operating table. Then he shot a jet of blood high into the air like some curious Plantagenet sperm whale and expired.
This was another instance where the blood and guts were played for laughs. Though to be fair it must have taken some practice to ensure that Edward’s spout was sufficiently spectacular.
It meant, however, that the following sequence in which no one died lacked comparative impact.
Queen Elizabeth lamented and the Duchess, Richard’s mother, offered him her blessing. But he only mocked her.
The scene picked up when Buckingham suggested cryptically to Richard that the princes should be murdered. Richard’s effusive praise for his “other self” and his “counsel’s consistory” and Buckingham’s beaming pride to have Richard’s favour was a great conspiratorial flourish that ended with some demonic laughter from the Duke.
Scene 2.3 was skipped, although one of its lines were used later. In 2.4 we saw the first of the puppet princes. They consisted of the head and torso of shop window dummy children with voices provided by the puppeteers.
York was put to bed by his mother, Queen Elizabeth. She and the Duchess planned to save the prince on hearing of the imprisonment of Rivers. Grey and Vaughan were not portrayed at all in this cut-down production.
The puppet Prince Edward appeared at the start of act three. Richard put a crown on Edward’s head and blew a party blower very loudly at him causing him to cry, whereupon Richard remarked that it must have been the “weary way” that had made him melancholy.
The sequence in which York was fetched was cut, so when York appeared the action continued with the two princes teasing each other.
Richard had fixed a dagger into the slot on his arm stump creating an immediate air of menace towards the princes, much more so than the simple wearing of a dagger on a belt might have done. When Edward asked for the dagger and Richard promised it with all his heart, the fact that it was pointing at Edward was particularly galling.
The little prince looked scared at the mention of the Tower, indicated as being within the discovery space, and began shaking.
Catesby was sent to sound out Hastings’ willingness to back Richard’s usurpation of the crown, which Hastings refused to do in 3.2.
The killing of Rivers was actually staged in 3.3. Ratcliffe looked at his ticking watch until it stopped before pronouncing that the limit of Rivers’ life was out. He was thrust into a body bag and taken out the back so that the bag could be swapped for a stuffed one. This bag was then dragged centre stage and beaten remorselessly with clubs.
Richard made another dynamic entrance in 3.4 and his request that the Bishop fetch some of his strawberries leant a kind of easiness to his dominance of the situation.
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Hastings, however, fatally misinterpreted Richard’s mood and once again Ratcliffe’s ticking watch was out. When it stopped Hastings was taken into the discovery space while a chainsaw was revved up. As Hastings screamed in agony, jets of blood spurted against the transparent door curtain. I sat and silently applauded the audacity of this gruesome staging.
Richard sat outside the discovery space impassively while this was going on. Once finished, the action skipped straight to the end of 3.5 with Richard instructing Buckingham to spread rumours about the illegitimacy of Edward’s children.
A body bag with bits of Hastings was dumped outside and the crown presented on a stool to Richard who grinned in triumph. Then the interval came.
At the start of the second half the chainsaw that had been used to cut up Hasting was positioned centre stage, where it remained while the Scrivener (in 3.6) described the moral dilemma of working on Richard’s indictment of Hastings.
A vaguely punkish song about London was used to introduce the scene (3.7) with the Mayor and the populace. Entitled the “Scrivener’s Rap” there was not actually any rapping involved.
Buckingham climbed the stage right tower in order to address the people. Some were impressed, but one of them ran amok shouting a line borrowed from 2.3 “O, full of danger is the Duke of Gloucester” whereupon Richard knocked him on the head with his metal stump, killing him.
Richard was revealed behind the discovery space at one point kneeling and praying and then in a second instance being beaten with a branch as a pious flagellant.
Buckingham encouraged Richard to accept the crown, allowing us to appreciate Richard’s fake piety and abhorrence of swearing. At this point the onstage chainsaw came into its own as Richard, in the full flow of his protestations of holiness, made an audible “oops!” as he saw the murder weapon and hastily hid it away.
Scene 4.1 was cut so the action continued with 4.2. Richard’s entry for his coronation was made hand-in-hand with Anne. The pair emerged from the discovery space and stepped over a mound of body bags. This was a rather heavy-handed visual metaphor for the brutal nature of Richard’s rise to power.
Richard snatched the proffered crown from the Archbishop and crowned himself in true tyrannical fashion. But was soon wishing the young prince dead to secure his hold on it.
Having ordered Catesby to spread rumours of his wife Anne’s sickness, Richard grabbed hold of her, smothered her close to his chest and then broke her neck whilst coolly stating “I must be married to my brother’s daughter”.
He tried to remove the wedding ring from her cold, dead finger. This was a bit of a struggle for a man with just the one hand. He turned his back to the audience taking Anne’s limp corpse with him and after a few seconds turned back again having bit her ring finger from her hand. The ring itself was then sucked from the finger, the severed limb spat unceremoniously to the ground.
The murderer Tyrrel cut a strange figure. A transparent mask covered his entire face and his words were spoken by another character. Richard instructed him to kill the princes, giving him a small teddy bear as the token that would allow him entry.
Buckingham’s insistence on Richard fulfilling his earlier promise to grant him the earldom of Hereford was soundly ignored by the king, who was obsessing about the threat from Richmond. This culminated in Richard speaking slowly and loudly into Buckingham’s ear the dismissive “I am not in the vein.”
Tyrrel did not speak his post-murder soliloquy in 4.3. Ratcliffe spoke on his behalf to report the job done, upon which Richard killed Tyrrel. A chorus of singing slowed to a stop as Tyrrel fell, but then took up again as the murdered murderer rose and walked off much to Richard’s surprise. The scene ended with news of more people lending their support to Richmond.
Queen Margaret brought out a specimen jar containing the preserved dummy heads of the two princes and placed it centre stage in 4.4. This spectacle matched the poetic horror of her first two lines “So now prosperity begins to mellow and drop into the rotten mouth of death”.
This subtle, thoughtful illustration of Richard’s brutality was more effective than the buckets of stage blood deployed elsewhere in the production. As so often, less can sometimes mean more.
The three women bewailing their sorry fates could have been the dramatic centre of a quieter and less blood-splattered production. But as it was, this deployment of Propeller’s all-male cast in female roles seemed like a downplayed interlude among the spectacular killings.
The incantatory exchanges between Margaret, the Duchess and Elizabeth were effective. The women interrupted Richard’s progress causing him to order his musicians to drown out their cursing. In addition to a tabor, the production’s thematic surgical instruments were struck against the lattice towers to create a metallic clang.
This and other sequences in the production showed male actors playing female characters displaying anger. It was noticeable how the cast created the impression that the playing field was somehow evened up for having these female complaints expressed with a male level of power and aggression.
Richard’s lengthy badgering of Elizabeth to secure her daughter’s consent to be his bride saw some biting sarcasm from both sides. The stylish stichomythic sequence starting from 4.4.343 was a pleasure to watch, another instance where the play’s quieter, more subtle moments shone through the spectacle.
Richard grabbed her round the waist at 423-4 when talking of her daughter’s womb as “that nest of spicery”. When he had (apparently) secured Elizabeth’s consent he kissed her at 430 telling her to “Bear her my true love’s kiss”.
As more bad news of Richmond’s progress arrived, Richard pointed at the operating table throne and asked sarcastically if it were empty, which, technically at that moment, it was as no one was sitting on it.
With Stanley’s son George taken hostage to ensure his father’s loyalty, Catesby relayed the good news that Buckingham had been captured. He was brought in at the start of 5.1 and after his woeful farewell speech he was put onto the operating table in its upright configuration facing away from the audience and then eviscerated with a hook.
His guts were produced for display. This was at least historically accurate as a representation of the drawing stage in hanging, drawing and quartering.
Richmond appeared in 5.2 dressed all in white to remind us that he was a good guy. He pensively clutched a crucifix in another representation of his virtue.
The stage was prepared for the dream scene by bringing in hospital screens to form a semicircle about six feet from the front row of seats enclosing the table. Richard entered to order his tent pitched, whereupon the screens were moved round to the front of the stage. Once they had circled back to position again, Richmond was sat on the table. This was repeated a couple of times to mark the change between tents.
As the dream itself began, the screens were removed completely to reveal Richard and Richmond sat at opposite ends of the table. The ghosts of Richard’s victims entered and as each progressed from cursing Richard to blessing Richmond, the following ghost entered to curse Richard so that curses and blessings overlapped.
It was particularly powerful to have one character’s “despair and die” intersect with the preceding character’s “live and flourish”. This was one of the production’s moving pieces of direction.
The puppet princes were touching to watch and Buckingham carried his eviscerated guts in front of him. At the end Richmond exited leaving Richard alone to wake from his dream and debate its meaning with himself.
Richmond’s oration to his troops was delivered from the gallery at the top of the discovery space, while Richard gave his standing on the operating table which was wheeled right to the front of the stage, causing the king to tower over the first few rows of the audience. This neatly emphasised Richard’s domineering character.
After the battle, the end of which was heralded by Ratcliffe looking at his ticking watch, Richard was wheeled in bleeding sat upright on the table calling for a horse in 5.4. Richmond drew a revolver and shot him once. Then after pronouncing that the bloody dog was dead, he was presented with the crown. But not before Richard stirred once more causing Richmond to fire off a second, fatal shot.
There was so much good in this production, but it tended to be pushed into the background by the more amusing and visually diverting pieces of staging. Propeller is the only company that can give us a consistent all-male take on the canon and so it was somewhat disappointing that they chose to make this production into a bloody spectacular rather than exploit their unique selling point.