The eternal sunshine of the spotless Richard

Richard III, Swan Theatre Stratford, 20 April 2012

It was not just his puckish quiff of hair, Irish accent and winning smile that made Jonjo O’Neill’s Richard III immensely likeable during his rise to power. There was also his attempt to live in an eternal present where the past did not matter.

A simple mistake, like killing someone’s relative, could be quickly recompensed by offering to marry them. He could murder a wife once she was surplus to requirements and then seek to procure another by similar intrigue.

This Richard’s happy but murderous ambition and strangely optimistic outlook were positive and forward-looking in comparison with the grimness of his dour relatives, themselves mostly murderers, who were in thrall to the past and their grievances.

The performance opened on a brief and uncharacteristic reversal of the underlying situation, with the king and others returning from battle to be greeted by their loving wives and children. This was something from which the unmarried, childless Richard was excluded. He smiled painfully, setting the tone for the self-loathing of his opening soliloquy.

But Richard was not downcast by his plight. His first word “Now” and its subsequent repetitions, underlined his preoccupation with the present and his schemes to alter the future to his liking.

The impish force of his personality gave the impression that England under this Richard would be a bloody mess, but at least it would not be dull.

The grey metal folding doors at back of the set and a floor of the same colour, captured the blandness of the court and its insecure melancholy into which Richard erupted.

His deformities were understated so that no hint of physical grotesqueness was conveyed by his slight limp and insignificant hunch. And he was not a figure of darkness upsetting a righteous and orderly establishment.

King Edward (Mark Jax) sat on his throne and received a bouquet of flowers from Richard, which he proceeded to give quite openly to Mistress Shore (Susie Trayling), who stood to his immediate left, in full view of Queen Elizabeth (Siobhan Redmond) positioned to his right.

The Duchess of York (Sandra Duncan) was prim and proper with a fixed expression as if chewing on the proverbial wasp. The thin and brittle Lady Anne (Pippa Nixon) suffered from a feverishness of mind which caused her first to submit to Richard’s wooing and subsequently to regret her weakness.

Even Richard’s most willing assistant, Buckingham (Brian Ferguson), was a besuited Scot with a constrained, stiff manner, making their alliance an unlikely pairing.

The only character that seemed to rise above all this was Margaret (Paola Dionisotti). After an unconvincing first appearance dramatically spotlit and framed in an archway, she gradually revealed herself to be a kind of ninja figure.

With her combat boots, black clothes, a sleeveless top revealing her toned arms, and with a physical litheness that allowed her to squat on the ground and then stretch up again, she exuded toughness and confidence. No wonder, then, that Queen Elizabeth began to look up to her.

Margaret stamped her foot on the ground as she issued each of her curses on Richard, a gesture which he repeated when turning the curses back on her by completing her “thou detested-“ with “Margaret”.

Richard continued to be a source of fun. There were laughs in the scene where he was presented as a holy man, in an attempt to trick the mayor of London in supporting him, based on the transparent fiction of the image being projected.

It was also difficult not to smile when Richard rejected Anne’s hand and insisted that Buckingham escort him up the steps to his high throne, after which he turned to face the audience and grinned in self-satisfaction at his accomplishment.

But sour notes had already begun to tarnish the jollity.

Rivers and Grey were executed by having ropes looped around their necks which were then pulled tight with a man tugging on each end.

The rough play between Richard and the young Duke of York culminated with the boy being held in an arm lock as Richard pretended to throttle him. But Buckingham’s wagging finger advised Richard to calm down, as he was clearly relishing the game to the point of risking real harm.

The actual murder of Edward’s children could not secure his position, and with his followers falling away and battle with Richmond (Iain Batchelor) impending, Richard’s dream sequence was immensely harrowing.

The speeches by the ghosts were rearranged so that they all appeared and cursed Richard first, mobbing and attacking him. Then they gathered to praise and support Richmond, crowning him and bearing him aloft, before marching right over the prone Richard, who wailed in fear.

The past was coming back to haunt Richard in many ways. When the day of battle arrived, the king and his forces formed a line facing the audience and advanced stamping their feet rhythmically in way directly reminiscent of Margaret’s stamping curses.

During the battle Prince Edward suddenly appeared and ran between Richmond and Richard. This intervention did not secure Richmond with any advantage at first, but after a brief battle, the challenger killed Richard by strangling him on the ground in an arm lock identical to that previously used against the young Duke.

After trying to live in an eternal present, Richard was eventually undone by those who could not forget.

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