Richard III, Old Vic London, 19 July 2011
The returns queue outside the Old Vic was so long it looked like they were giving away free money. The critics had been generous and the general buzz surrounding Kevin Spacey’s final Bridge Project production indicated that the transatlantic partnership was going out with a considerable bang.
A further sense of expectation was created by the safety curtain. It hung across the proscenium with the word NOW projected on it in capitals.
It was a reminder of the first word of the play, much as Jonathan Slinger’s Gloucester had spoken the same word in the final seconds of the RSC’s Henry VI Part Three. But it was also an implied stage direction indicating that the play was contemporary either in setting or relevance. Richard III was all about NOW.
The curtain rose to reveal Richard sat in a chair wearing a party hat in an otherwise empty room. Small amounts of party debris were collected around the bottom of the chair indicating recent festivities.
Black and white newsreel footage played on a small monitor at back of the room. Troops were returning home after victory. Richard clicked anachronistically on a remote control, freezing the picture on the face of King Edward. The image of “this son of York” responsible for this “glorious summer” stood in the background of Richard’s opening soliloquy.
The “lascivious pleasings of a lute” were illustrated by Richard rasping out a note on a party blower. His next thought, that he was “not shaped for sportive tricks”, leading into his long disquisition on his deformity, saw him rise from his chair to display the grotesque contortions of his body.
His left leg was twisted so that the lower part was at a right angle, the foot almost en pointe with the heel permanently off the ground: this made the simple act of standing up look like a painful exertion. His body was bent forward, propped up by the stick held by his left arm. His right arm, supposedly withered, was held close to his chest, making him look remarkably like a two-legged dinosaur.
Richard leant forward and, with a roving and unblinking eye, surveyed the audience like a creature seeking out prey.
His shadow appeared to him projected onto the stage right wall. He bobbed up and down to watch it move, taking a simplistic pleasure in the relationship between cause and effect.
Clarence entered the sparse room guarded by Brackenbury. He had a relaxed drink and smoke with Richard. Brackenbury’s objection to their continued conversation was countered by Richard, but he could not resist making a dig at Edward’s wife, pausing before saying “well struck in years” as if desperately searching for a compliment to pay Queen Elizabeth.
Clarence stubbed out his cigarette into his glass and handed it to Richard as he exited. Richard watched him go and, once certain that he was gone, turned to look at us. His gaze made us complicit with the intent behind his “Go, tread the path that thou shalt ne’er return”.
Hastings had a distinct Yorkshire accent. Richard spoke with him about his release, and then hobbled around the stage explaining his plan to us. This included marrying Warwick’s daughter. The line “What though I killed her husband and her father?” was spoken as if anticipating our objections to his perfidy.
The next scene (1.2) was heralded by the name “Lady Anne” being projected onto the set. Similar projections were used in subsequent scenes to announce the key presence of characters and locations, notably Boswell Field.
Annabel Scholey’s Anne led the funeral cortege for Henry VI. Bearers put down a stretcher carrying his shrouded body. She looked very much like Louise Brooks with her dark bob. This styling was consistent with 1920s theme established by the monochrome newsreel footage.
Richard limped in upstage. Spitting with anger, he threatened the attendants who backed off. Anne’s initial scolding referenced Henry’s wounds bleeding again, at which point blood could be seen seeping out of them into the shroud.
The bitter exchange between Richard and Anne accelerated. The Duke’s weasel words and self justification provoked Anne’s scorn. But then he dropped a bombshell, countering Anne’s suggestion that a dungeon would be a fit place for him with a radical alternative: “Your bedchamber.”
Anne was shocked and disgusted. Her outrage was stopped in its tracks, however, when Richard invoked her beauty as the force that had motivated his murder of her husband. She still resisted, but it was plain that he had found her weakness. Richard gradually moved closer and pinned Anne against the stage left wall. She spat in his face at close range.
They moved stage right and Richard knelt before Anne offering his dagger for her to strike at him. As she dropped the weapon, Richard grabbed at her and turned her over saying: “Take up the sword again, or take up me”. She talked resistance of a sort but eventually embraced him and took the ring he proffered.
Anne exited and Richard continued to look after her with an adoring expression on his face. This expression evaporated in an instant and he turned to look at us. He effectively dropped his act and began to be himself with us. The audience were the only people he really liked and to whom he revealed his true self.
Richard railed on her for her frailty. He walked up and down, making to go and then turning back as he remembered something else to tell us. All the while he seemed disgusted by her weakness, and as that disgust took hold he aggrandised himself.
Queen Elizabeth, played by Haydn Gwynne, managed to look elegant and disgusted at same time at the start of 1.3. The stage now represented a room full of her family and friends, with chairs placed in a semi-circle.
Richard entered stage right and the sound of dogs barking was heard offstage: a neat in-joke looking back to his opening soliloquy. The barking of his voice hinted that he and the dogs had something in common.
His aggression also took the form of sarcasm. “Iwis your grandam had a worser match” was said as a Groucho Marx impression. His bent, contorted body already had the appropriate stance, so Richard only had to pretend to be holding a cigar to complete the effect.
A door opened stage left, and, accompanied by eerie sound effects, Margaret slipped in unseen by the assembled company. Her grey coat decorated with small medals suggested her warlike past, a white party crown referenced her regal claims, and a necklace made of teeth hinted at the occult practices she was soon to be engaged in.
She wandered around room speaking her asides completely ignored. However, when she addressed the “wrangling pirates” she suddenly became visible and everyone in the room noticed her. This looked supernatural.
Margaret took a handful of sand and spread it into a witches’ circle. She formally invoked her “quick curses” through witchcraft. This made Richard’s request “Have done thy charm” particularly apt.
She greeted Buckingham warmly, but his flippancy caused her to warn him against Richard.
Richard’s closing soliloquy again made us complicit in his plans. He showed us a small religious book when referring to the scriptural borrowings he had deployed. The murderers entered. One looked solid, the other slightly shifty.
Clarence lay crumpled in a corner downstage right (1.4) as the jailer entered. He rose from the ground for his long speech about his dream, after which the murderers entered. The inverted morality of the killers came as light relief. The older murderer stabbed Clarence and then stuck his head into a butt downstage left until he drowned.
The action returned to a room in the palace at the start of act two. The nobles gathered in a semi-circle and the wheelchair-bound Edward was brought in with a blanket on his lap.
Edward asked Rivers and Hastings to make up, which they did lukewarmly. The King took this as a challenge to this authority and rose out of his chair, causing the blanket to fall to the ground. He angrily ordered them to do better.
Rivers and Hastings made more of a show of their reconciliation and a photographer captured the moment. The other nobles followed suit and made up for the camera. Buckingham, in particular, went round the group and was snapped shaking hands with the others and also photographed standing alone.
The sick-making false sincerity of Richard was just a prologue to his bombshell about the death of Clarence. Some in the audience were amused at Chuk Iwuji’s Buckingham asking the others if he looked pale with the shock of the news.
Stanley asked forgiveness for one of his servants. This, contrasted with the death of Clarence, deeply affected King Edward who retired sick in his chair accompanied by the Queen.
The action continued seamlessly from around 2.2.39 with Queen Elizabeth entering and leaving open the centre doors to reveal Edward dead in his chair just behind. Clarence’s children were edited out of the scene completely.
Richard received a blessing from his mother, the Duchess, but he did not like its tenor.
It was generally agreed that Prince Edward should be brought to London and crowned. This prompted Buckingham’s suggestion to Richard that they should intervene, which pleased him greatly.
The scene with the three citizens (2.3) was staged using three straphangers on a train. A row of straps descended and the commuters stood and talked in the bowler hats and suits. The setting was again vaguely in the 1920s.
Queen Elizabeth and York (played by Katherine Manners in a boys’ school uniform) sat on a sofa (2.4). The Duchess in her trouser suit looked somewhat like Honor Blackman. The Messenger brought news of the arrests of Rivers and Grey, prompting them to take the young Prince to sanctuary.
Act three began with Prince Edward (Hannah Stokely in another boys’ school unform) turning away from the centre doors as if waving goodbye on a palace balcony. His attendants carried party balloons with a degree of stiffness and formality that belied their festive function.
With the Cardinal sent off to fetch Prince Richard, Edward’s questions to Buckingham about the Tower of London annoyed Richard. He muttered under his breath about the Prince’s inquisitiveness before articulating his chilling aside: “So wise so young, they say, do never live long”.
The Prince, half-hearing what Richard said, asked him to repeat himself. Richard replied with an innocuous modified version but omitted his subsequent comment comparing himself to the Vice, Iniquity. His remark needed no further comment; its duplicity spoke for itself.
York took Richard’s dagger and ran off pointing it at him. He mocked Richard, imitating his tortuous walk when replying that he would thank Richard as Richard called him: “Little”. York jumped onto Richard’s back. The others froze, anxiously wondering how volatile Richard would react, but the Duke indicated that the situation was in hand.
Buckingham sent Catesby to sound out Hastings, and asked Richard what they should do if Hastings was not willing to assist them. Richard’s reply “Chop off his head” made Buckingham laugh, but then he realised Richard was serious and looked stunned. This was the first indication that Buckingham was not fully onboard with Richard’s plans.
Hastings was in bed with his wife (3.2) when woken by a messenger from Stanley. Still in his dressing gown and with his wife still asleep under the sheets, he spoke to Catesby and refused to assist Richard. The scene was truncated so that the several other visitors did not appear.
Rivers and Grey (the role of Vaughan was entirely cut throughout) were put in chairs under a dim bulb (3.3). Margaret appeared upstage when her curse was mentioned.
Two of the doors that lined the walls of the set were illuminated, the light filling precisely their exact rectangular shape. Margaret made cross marks on the two doors. The condemned men were seated on separate chairs which were sufficiently close to enable them to comfort each other by holding hands. Their execution was stylised. Ratcliffe brushed his hand over the eyes of each man in turn, as if putting them to sleep. Once their eyes were closed, he switched off the light.
The next scene (3.4) saw the meeting to discuss the impending coronation of Prince Edward. Richard sent Ely off for strawberries as way of getting him out of way. Richard and Buckingham went out of the room for a short while. Ely returned with strawberries in a punnet, which he passed round.
The audience groaned at Hastings’ complete misreading of Richard’s character and attitude. In general terms, he said that Richard was easy to read and specifically that he was not annoyed at anyone that day.
Richard burst in angrily causing the others to stop eating the strawberries. He shoved his withered arm in Hastings’ face and ordered his execution for failing to accept it was the result of the Queen’s sorcery. Richard stormed out followed by the others, leaving Hastings to bewail his fate. His references to the priest and pursuivant were cut as they had not appeared in 3.2.
Margaret appeared again when Hastings mentioned her curse. She made a mark on a door after which Ratcliffe reiterated his stylised execution by swiping his hand over Hastings’ eyes.
The Mayor of London was ushered in stage left (3.5). A riot broke out offstage right and attendants tried to prevent the doors from bursting open. Buckingham protected the Mayor from the apparent chaos.
A box containing the head of the recently executed Hastings was brought in. Richard stabbed at it inside the box while venting his spleen against Hastings and spat when mentioning Hastings’ “conversation” with Shore’s wife. After assuring the Mayor of Hastings’ guilt and securing his support, Richard dispatched Buckingham to spread rumours that Edward and his heirs were illegitimate.
Here, as elsewhere in the production, Richard watched and took notice of everything. He was always on the lookout for danger, treachery and opportunities. As he pivoted on his gammy leg, his right hand twitched with nerves.
The brief scene 3.6 showed the Scrivener with a paper containing the indictment of Hastings.
At the start of 3.7 Buckingham told Richard that the mayor and citizens of London were reluctant to support him. But a plan had been hatched. Monks robes were taken from a large costume basket so that Richard’s followers could pretend to be holy men.
Richard exited to go to his private chamber, which was displayed via a live link on a large video screen above the stage. Richard was shown with his back to the camera engaged in prayer with his two robed men.
With the Mayor in position, Catesby went between the stage and Richard’s room bringing replies from Richard designed to impress the Mayor and citizens. Several comic moments underlined the absurdity of the enterprise: Richard shushed Catesby back to ensure delivery of a positive message to sway the Londoners; and Buckingham’s reference to Richard’s prayer book prompted him to hold the book aloft to make it clearly visible.
After Buckingham’s direct address to him, Richard turned towards the camera and his face loomed large on the huge screen. Buckingham stood downstage and spoke into a microphone as if addressing a crowd.
Richard oozed thinly disguised fake sincerity as he wrapped himself in assumed holiness. The Citizens were represented by people at the back of auditorium who shouted their approval or disapproval at the sentiments expressed in Buckingham’s rousing oratory, effectively making us part of that crowd. This was especially effective for a performance of the production in London.
Having had his arm apparently twisted into assuming the crown, Richard eventually relented and Buckingham proclaimed him king.
A door stage left served as the entrance to the Tower (4.1) at which the women gathered before being rebuffed by Brackenbury. Anne was told by Stanley that she was to be crowned as Richard’s queen. She was mortified at the prospect.
Queen Elizabeth mentioned Margaret’s curse, and she appeared as if on cue to witness another instance of her supernatural powers biting down on a victim.
But while characters such as the Queen merely spoke of Richard’s effect on them, from this moment on it was Anne who would be a visual as well as rhetorical emblem of his pernicious influence.
Looking as if she had not indeed slept in a long time, as her speech indicated, Anne realised that her curse upon Richard and his future wife had now rebounded on herself as a consequence of marrying him.
The first major change to the set occurred at the start of 4.2. The stage opened up at the back to create a receding perspective showing a long corridor of doors. All the doors had marks on them, indicating the long line of Margaret’s victims. Both sides of the corridor were lined with uniformed drummers.
At the very end of the corridor the back wall was occupied by a large photo of Richard’s face in close-up, reminiscent of a Big Brother poster and also of his onscreen presence in 3.7. This indicated the repressive nature of the regime being installed.
Queen Anne sat in a throne far upstage dressed in an ermine robe. Richard entered downstage, also in ermine. He walked upstage, but after a few steps he fell and asked Buckingham to help him up. He eventually sat in the throne, took hold of the crown and in true dictatorial style crowned himself as he said “… is King Richard seated.” The drums beat out their warlike thrum, and on this dismal sound the interval came.
When the play began after the interval, the thrones and their occupants had moved downstage. Overlapping from the end of the first half, Richard crowned himself again.
Now visible close up, Anne had tears in her eyes and her facial expression was a continuation of the distraught state in which she had first received the news of Richard’s accession.
Her silent, tear-stained misery spoke louder than any of the lengthy expositions others had made about their plight.
Richard paused and smirked at the audience. After this powerful silence, in which the newly-crowned Richard took an uncharacteristic opportunity to unwind, he asked “But shall we wear these glories for a day…?” and removed his ermine to reveal a black uniform top.
Having enjoyed a brief instant of what passed for serenity, Richard sounded out Buckingham’s readiness to the kill the princes. Buckingham hesitated and withdrew having raised Richard’s ire.
After sending for Tyrell the murderer, Richard was angrily dismissive of Buckingham, thereby hinting at his impending death.
Richard told Catesby to rumour that Anne was sick and about to die. This was particularly heartless as she was still sat next to him. Anne had previously foreseen Richard’s desire to be rid of her.
As her husband effectively gave orders for her death, she sat staring into the distance, grimly accepting her fate with the same helpless, sorrowful expression she had worn throughout the scene.
Tyrell was quiet and undemonstrative. Richard was pleased with his attitude and gave him a ring as a token to gain admittance to the Tower.
Buckingham chose the wrong moment to ask for the earldom promised to him. Richard was now disenchanted with his former ally and made a great display of talking to Stanley or to himself instead of answering.
When he finally did address Buckingham, Richard wagged his finger back and forth to indicate the way Buckingham kept the stroke “Betwixt thy begging and my meditation”. He stood close and spoke loudly and slowly to tell him “I am not in the vein”. Buckingham realised he had to escape.
Tyrell brought in a box and tenderly placed it on a chair (4.3) before his soliloquy about the murders. Richard questioned Tyrell about the outcome and the bloody nightshirt he found inside the box also answered his enquiries.
Richard once again addressed himself to the audience with an easiness that suggested worryingly that he would trust us to work on his behalf. He began to tell us that he wanted to woo the young Elizabeth. Ratcliffe intruded and Richard reacted in annoyance as if Ratcliffe had interrupted his pleasant chat with us, his best friends.
Margaret entered upstage at the far end of the dark corridor carrying a suitcase (4.4). She made her way down the long line of marked doors delivering her speech about prosperity mellowing and dropping into the rotten mouth of death.
As she reached the downstage area, increased lighting allowed us to see Elizabeth (stage right) and the Duchess (stage left) at the sides huddled against doors in semi-darkness.
The pitiful spectacle of the distraught women bewailing their losses was particularly moving.
Margaret finished her asides and made herself visible to the others, putting down her suitcase. She mocked Elizabeth, who had seated herself on the suitcase, and put a white cloth crown on her head, eventually pushing her off the suitcase onto the ground.
Elizabeth pleaded with Margaret to teach her how to curse. The lesson was soon put into effect as she and the Duchess met Richard and began to rail at him. But Richard’s drummers drowned them out. The king was now wearing a military uniform.
Richard gestured to the drummers with his hand to quieten them sufficiently to allow him to be heard as he spoke. He winced slightly under his mother’s onslaught.
Richard let the Duchess depart, but asked Elizabeth to stay. He tried to convince her to support his marriage to her daughter, the young Elizabeth, who was brought in and seated upstage as if under guard. Her apparent detention implied that Richard was not simply making a polite request.
He sat at a table and poured some coffee. But this apparent relaxation was shown to be illusory when he threw the table over in annoyance at Elizabeth’s reluctance.
The argument produced great sarcasm from Elizabeth when she asked which king would make her daughter queen. Richard became enraged and advanced towards her shouting. Elizabeth appeared to consent to win her daughter over. Richard kissed her farewell, bidding her to pass the greeting on to his intended wife.
It was fairly obvious that Elizabeth was unconvinced. Richard spat out invective against her after she had gone.
Soldiers sat at tables and operated field radios. They passed on reports about Richmond and other challengers. Richard hit one of the messengers without hearing his news, but rewarded him with a purse when he realised his report confirmed the defeat of Buckingham. He soon learnt from another message that Buckingham had been captured.
After a brief scene with Stanley and Sir Christopher (4.5), Buckingham was brought in under guard (5.1). Buckingham’s conclusion that “Margaret’s curse falls heavy on my neck” was spoken as she hovered in the background, checking up on another victim and marking another door. He was led to his execution offstage.
The performance began to move towards its concluding battle. At the start of 5.2 soldiers of both armies lined up on both sides of stage. Richmond’s men stepped forward from both sides and he addressed them with a rousing speech.
Richmond and his men stood back allowing Richard and his army to come forward (5.3). His men wore Richard’s emblem, a red boar insignia, on their uniforms. A large table was placed across the centre of the stage.
Richmond sat at the stage right end of the table and Richard at the stage left end. The action alternated between their evening preparations as each end of the table was lit in turn.
As the king slept, lighting under the table suddenly illuminated the ashen-faced ghosts of Richard’s victims who were sitting along the table facing the audience between Richmond and Richard. The actors had creeped into position unseen when the audience’s attention had been focused on events at the far ends of the table.
Margaret entered behind them and cracked some small bones together to prompt each person’s speech.
The sequence began with a toast led by Clarence, drinking to Richard with the same substance in which Richard had had him drowned. After him, the princes spoke, again condemning Richard and wishing Richmond well.
Anne sat on Richard’s lap to speak her words on condemnation and then went to sit more contentedly on Richmond’s lap, who was effectively frozen signifying his own sleep, to wish him success. Buckingham talked in Richard’s ear up close.
Richard appeared tormented by his dream and continued to be distressed by it when he awoke. His “Is there a murderer here?” was pathetic self-pity rather than genuine repentance. This was in keeping with the insincerity of his character. After Ratcliffe escorted Richard away, we learnt that Richmond had enjoyed a quiet night.
The words “Bosworth Field” were projected onto the side of the set as battle lines were drawn up. The magnificent seven ghosts made a thundering noise on large drums at the front. This had echoes of the recent RSC Macbeth with its ghost army composed of Macbeth’s victims.
Richard’s dead wife Anne, her face a blank, seemed to express her feelings solely through the constant throb of the relentless drumbeat. Her previous passive acceptance was now transformed into warlike aggression communicated through sound.
Behind the drummers, Richard and Richmond stood on tables on either side of the stage. Their orations to their armies and other dialogue, including Richard’s speech about the uselessness of conscience, were intermingled to create a rapid alternation between each side. This maintained the excitement of the battle preparations created by the drumming.
The sound of the drums represented the battle itself. It suddenly ceased as the ghost army departed to reveal Richard sitting on the ground facing upstage crying for “A horse, a horse”. He turned round, showing himself to be covered in blood and gore.
Richmond entered and fought with him. Margaret appeared behind them and watched. In Richard’s most dynamic sequence, it was very difficult not to focus on his gammy leg. Despite the fact that he seemed to have acquired a hitherto unseen degree of agility for the sword fight, he did maintain the en pointe posture of his leg: quite a difficult feat.
Both men ended up dropping their swords and resorted to fighting with daggers. Richard seemed poised to drive a dagger into Richmond when Margaret made a gesture whose supernatural effect caused the dagger to turn on Richard instead. He was killed and hoisted into the air hanging from a hook for the duration of Richmond’s final speech.
The performance ended with Richmond crowning himself.
There was a massive amount of applause and a standing ovation. I was one of the first to shoot to my feet in appreciation of what was a magnificent production. It took some time for Kevin Spacey to be lowered to the ground and released from the rope so that he could join in the curtain calls.
This production will be remembered for Kevin Spacey’s mesmeric Richard. Spacey sometimes seemed worryingly good in the role.
The 1920s setting was sufficiently distant in time to allow Margaret’s witchcraft not to seem anachronistic.
Annabel Scholey’s Anne was one of the other memorable performances. Her initial vulnerability, her descent in silent acquiescence and then the image of her grim vengeance as part of the ghost army of drummers formed the only other clear character narrative apart from Richard’s.
The amazing sight of Richard and Anne sat on their thrones at the far end of a long corridor was only possible on a proscenium arch stage. Whatever the advantages of the thrust stage, there are times when distancing the audience from the action in a separate space is an exciting effect.