Mackay the Knife

Richard III, Tobacco Factory Bristol, 15 March 2013

John Mackay’s Richard bounded into the centre of the space without the customary dimming of the lights that usually heralds the start of a Tobacco Factory performance (1.1). Keeping the lights bright across the space reinforced the bond of complicity inherent in Richard’s opening address to the audience.

The bright illumination showed us the full detail of his tall lean frame and short white hair. This Richard was reminiscent of a gangling vulture whose height enabled him to glance down at his victims from the perspective of a bird of prey in flight.

His manner was not angry or insane, but energetic. The energy that burst out of him underpinned Richard’s desire to have a “world to bustle in”.

Such was the pleasure this Richard took in his machinations that Andrew Hilton loaned him a perfectly apt line from 3 Henry 6: “I can smile and murder whiles I smile”. This was a perfect summary of Richard Mackay’s characterisation. His Richard was sane but brutal. Feverish madness would have been superfluous, even an indication of weakness.

With insanity underplayed, deformity also took a back seat: a slight limp and a twist of his thin arm were the only indications of physical defect.

While taking us into his confidence, Richard pointed offstage to the unseen “son of York” whom he also gestured at when referring to “this fair proportion”.

The iron columns of the performance space had been faced with wood with seat ledges at the bottom, so that they resembled thin versions of Globe columns. Near the top of each column, arms were hung up for monuments, which Richard tapped when referring to the peacetime redundancy of these instruments of war.

Richard crooked his finger into a G to illustrate the ominous letter that had earned Clarence his imprisonment. Clarence (Rupert Holliday Evans) was brought in under guard. It was possible at this point to register that the production was using period costume.

The intimacy of the Tobacco Factory space promoted identification and sympathy with Richard. He came across as comical and our confidant. This enhanced the text’s attempt to make Richard familiar to us.

His yellow stockings were faintly reminiscent of Malvolio, perhaps influencing our view of him. There was also an element of comedy in his occasional wide-eyed, uncomprehending looks.

Richard responded to Brakenbury’s (Jack Bannell) intervention with light-hearted sarcasm, which made the audience laugh. His ribald remark about Mistress Shore “He that doth naught with her” was accompanied by an illustrative hip thrust stressing the “naught”.

Henry VI’s body was carried in on a pallet accompanied by Dorothea Myer-Bennett’s Lady Anne (1.2). Richard appeared at a corner entrance located at the top of the raked seating so that he looked down onto the main space.

When stopping the cortege, he made a firm, insistent threat. He did not splutter with rage, but spoke in the manner of someone who expected to be obeyed, deploying only that degree of menace required to secure obedience.

Anne pulled back the shroud to reveal a real actor’s body (Andrew Macbean) with fake bleeding wounds. The fact that the corpse was obviously a real person made the reveal very effective, particularly at such close range.

Richard and Anne knelt either side of the body for their fractious dispute.

They eventually moved aside and Anne was shocked by Richard’s assertion that he was fit for her bedchamber. This audacious effrontery threw her off balance and for a flickering instant she dropped her furious defences and considered his offer. The seed of the idea had been sown. It said something for the detail of the performance that this brief flash could come across to the audience.

Exploit

Anne spat at Richard, but instantly regretted it, as if she were ashamed of reacting excessively. This was another weakness that Richard could exploit.

Richard launched into a long, overwrought speech about the effect of her beauty on him. He finally knelt, offering his sword to Anne and demanding that she strike him if she could not forgive his crimes. Anne could only hold the sword limply before letting it fall.

Richard moved in really close and kissed her neck. He offered Anne his ring to wear, which she took nervously. Despite her collapsed defences, her departing words “Imagine I have said farewell already” were spoken as she turned her back and walked briskly away from Richard, which indicated that she was at this point very much in two minds about his proposal.

“Was ever woman in this humour wooed?” saw Richard pick up his conversation with us again, as if the preceding sequence had been a demonstration of the principle he wished to elucidate.

Queen Elizabeth (Lisa Kay) furrowed her brow as she and her brothers fretted over the king’s poor health (1.3). The small stage was already quite full when Richard entered and this enhanced the impression that he was encroaching on, and then confined within, territory already dominated by his fierce opponents.

When he first entered, Richard adopted his characteristic limp and twist of the arm but then relaxed out of it. This initial display served as a reminder of his personality and was therefore not required throughout an entire scene. The point about his deformity was made and then attention was focussed on his complaints that the Queen and her faction were conspiring against him.

The role of Margaret was entirely absent from the production, so the text in this scene was cut from her first speech after coming forward, up to when Catesby (Joe Hall) brought the king’s summons to those assembled.

After another of Richard’s fireside chats with the audience about his “secret mischiefs”, he conversed with the excellently menacing murderers (Marc Geoffrey and Chris Donnelly).

Clarence sat on a mattress watched over by his jailer, who perched on a chair beside a plate of food (1.4). Clarence’s description of his fevered dream gained from being delivered in such a small space. Although not cramped, the Tobacco Factory performance area proved a more convincing cell than other larger stages.

Brakenbury handed over Clarence to his murderers with brusque resignation. The knockabout comedy of the murderers’ pre-planning woke Clarence, who defended himself eloquently, confidently noting that the murderers could scarcely utter their intention.

The scene took a novel twist when the murderers countered Clarence’s invocation of God’s vengeance on their planned crime by holding a dagger menacingly to his neck, pinning him against a pillar, as they enumerated the crimes for which Clarence could also expect such divine retribution.

Clarence was stabbed and then dragged backwards offstage.

King Edward (Christopher Bianchi) sat on an ornate chair (2.1). His sickness was indicated by his general pallor, the tremor in his voice and a slight, febrile shaking of the hands as he urged the factions to reconcile.

Hastings (Alan Coveney) in particular seemed not to be taking this insincere kissing of cheeks at all seriously, an attitude he would also demonstrate later in his airy dismissal of Stanley’s warnings about Richard.

Richard calmly announced that, contrary to the king’s expectations, Clarence had been killed. He seemed to enjoy springing this trap, relishing his awareness of his superior tactical skill. He was a professional in a world of amateurs.

Stanley (David Collins) requested mercy for his servant, which prompted strong feelings of self-loathing in Edward for having condemned Clarence to death. He rose from his chair as he fulminated against his own folly and then collapsed in a fit. Everyone left to accompany the sick king, as Richard, gaining another tactical victory, blamed the entire affair on the queen.

Clarence’s children were not included in 2.2, so their section was cut entirely, apart from lines 27-30 where the Duchess of York (Nicky Goldie) stood alone, leaning heavily on her walking stick, as she railed against the “deep deceit” and “vice” of her son.

Elizabeth re-entered in deep distress at the king’s death, again with the children’s reactions cut.

The Duchess was a sufficiently imposing figure to compensate for the absence of Margaret. She was certainly the only real match for Richard, who was visibly put out to discover her present.

He knelt before her and she delivered her blessing leant directly over him, making her a physically as well as morally dominating figure.

Buckingham (Paul Currier) tried to cheer everyone up by invoking the glowing future promised by Edward’s heir, following this with a convincing argument for the princes’ escort to be few in number.

He proved himself to be skilled at insincere rhetoric. The self-consciously dramatic performance of these words must have given Richard the idea that Buckingham would make a good tragedian in his subsequent ploy against the Mayor of London.

The scene ended with their chillingly unspecific plot to separate the princes from their reduced escort.

Detention

The brief recap scene (2.3) in which various Citizens (including Dorothea Myer-Bennett) discussed the future of the kingdom was followed by the scene in which the Prince of York (Luke Zollman Thomas) was fussed over by his mother and grandam (2.4). Responding to the news of the detention of Rivers (John Sandeman) and Grey (Piers Wehner), the queen made preparations for York to be escorted to safety.

Richard was no less patronising to the young Prince Edward (Olly Bell) than he was to the adults (3.1). Buckingham was dismissive of objections to breaking the sanctuary taken by the young Prince of York.

Prince Edward’s dislike of the Tower and his intelligent questions about its history were excellently done by the boy actor, so that Richard’s implied threat “So wise so young, they say, do never live long”, delivered as an aside to the audience, was particularly galling.

York was reunited with Edward and told Richard that his brother had outgrown him. Richard crouched down to York’s level and glanced across at Edward to confirm “He hath, my lord”. This was typical of the light-hearted banter with which Richard disguised his murderous designs.

Richard sounded out Catesby’s opinions on the pliability of Hastings and Stanley.

Buckingham’s question about the fate of Hastings should he not prove an ally, prompted Richard’s “Chop off his head, something we will determine”. This was said quickly as if not wanting to make it funny, but the audience seized on it anyway.

Presumably due to his good mood, Richard offered Buckingham the dukedom of Hereford.

In a nice touch, Mistress Shore (stage manager Polly Meech), clutching a sheet to her body, accompanied Hastings to the door as he received Stanley’s messenger, who had come warn him of Richard’s ambitions (3.2). Hastings dismissed the report of Stanley’s dream about being pursued by a boar, Richard’s symbol.

Catesby found Hastings defiantly opposed to Richard’s rule. Hastings was clearly fearless of Richard, because when Stanley then appeared in person, Hastings taunted him sarcastically about his portentous dream, asking him why he carried no boar-spear. This was a continuation of his happy-go-lucky attitude to the reconciliations forced on him earlier by King Edward.

The Pursuivant was cut, but the Priest (Peter Clifford) was kept.

A brief scene showed Rivers and Grey being escorted across the end of the performance space (3.3). They paused to rue their fate and then continued along the back and out the other side.

The council table and chairs were placed across the diagonal of the performance area (3.4).

When he turned up, Richard did not skulk like an outsider but was actually glad to see the others, another sign of his growing confidence. Hearing of Hastings’ resistance, and after disappearing briefly with Buckingham, Richard re-entered and sat at the end of the council table, pulling his chair in several times until he was wedged under it as tightly as possible.

Richard leant forward conspiratorially and the others followed suit to form a tight group over the table surface. He produced his sickly arm and laid it flat on the table for general inspection, alleging that the queen’s sorcery had withered it.

Richard seized on Hastings’ doubtful “if”, not in anger but like someone unemotionally springing a trap. He displayed no more madness than a hungry creature seizing on its prey. His order for Hastings’ beheading was likewise short and swift.

As Richard swept out of the room, Hastings was left stunned and stared straight ahead as the full significance of events caught up with him.

Richard and Buckingham prepared to dupe the Mayor of London (3.5). Having seen previous examples of Buckingham’s acting ability, Richard was optimistically playful when asking him whether he could “Murder thy breath in middle of a word”. Hastings head was brought to Richard before its scripted appearance and some invented lines had Richard look inside the bag and declare “Hello Hastings!” before the arrival of the Mayor (Rupert Holliday Evans).

When the bag containing Hastings’ head was shown to him in front of the Mayor, Richard acted distraught and sobbed “I must weep…” in an hypocritical display that was the complete opposite of his flippant attitude in the earlier invented sequence.

The Mayor had a cockney accent, which was a nice piece of reverse regional characterisation from this Bristol company. Needless to say the Mayor was completely taken in by the conspirators’ pantomime.

Richard said he would isolate the princes from their guardians in a speech supplemented by a key passage from 3 Henry VI: “I can smile, and murder whiles I smile”. Andrew Hilton could obviously not resist importing this line, because it was a perfect summary of Mackay’s characterisation, which, instead of suggesting some exculpatory infirmity of mind, emphasised the real pleasure Richard took in his actions.

At this point the interval came. There was no scene 3.6 with the Scrivener, which meant that the second half began with 3.7.

Buckingham reported back to Richard that the citizens of London had been unmoved by his appeals. His blunt “They spake not a word” amused the interval-refreshed audience. In addition, he lapsed into a London accent to parody the Mayor’s explanation that “the people were used not to be spoke to but by the Recorder”.

Catesby and Buckingham made a good job of preparing the Mayor for Richard’s dramatic appearance in the high corner entrance. Richard, with two bishops at his side, read out loud from a prayer book, apparently oblivious to the assembled company.

Buckingham was excellent in his furious insistence that if Richard would not rule the country then nor would Edward’s illegitimate offspring.

Crown

Richard on the other hand was not overly melodramatic. His “Will you enforce me to a world of cares?”, said just before his final acceptance of the crown, was underplayed and not milked for its comic potential.

The Duchess, Elizabeth and Anne met outside the Tower (4.1). They were refused entry, a setback that was followed by more bad news brought by Stanley. He told Anne that she was to be crowned Richard’s queen. The role of Dorset was cut and for a strange reason the Duchess’ age was changed from the text’s 80 to a more historically accurate 70.

The coronation scene displayed some great directorial flair (4.2). The entire court gathered before the throne and knelt. The queen appeared in her new crown and took her place at the front of the obeisant assembly. Richard, now in a regal doublet and with a crown composed of black toothed spikes like an open gin trap, sat in this throne, paused, then impatiently rose and spoke with Buckingham whom he plucked out of the crowd.

The entire exchange, including the disposal of Anne, was conducted with the court still kneeling in attendance on Richard. The king lost his patience with the cold Buckingham. Catesby’s aside about the Richard gnawing his lip was cut to make this an isolated, two-handed exchange with the court still reverently on its knees.

Richard ordered Catesby to spread rumours that Anne was sick as she continued to kneel a short distance away. Her lack of reaction was either her theatrical absence from earshot or a symptom of her resigned acceptance.

The murderer Tyrrel (Christopher Bianchi again) appeared at the high corner entrance and was dispatched to kill the princes.

Buckingham claimed the dukedom of Hereford from Richard, who studiously ignored him. The performance text at this point included only the second instance of Richard saying “I am not in the vein”.

Richard received the good news that the princes had been killed, inspiring him to pursue young Elizabeth, but he then became downcast when told that forces led by Richmond were massing against him.

With no Margaret in this production, 4.4 began with Queen Elizabeth’s weeping as she imagined the princes’ souls flying up into the air.

A general problem for this sequence was that tragedy and sadness seemed difficult to evoke in such a small space, as there was greater awareness of the actors beneath the characters and it proved more difficult to believe in their grief.

The absence of Margaret meant that the incantatory argument between the women was cut, and no lesson in cursing was given, which reduced the rhetorical power of the scene. The action cut straight from Margaret’s entrance to Richard’s appearance with drummers at the high corner entrance.

The Duchess, making up for Margaret’s absence, expressed an extremely forceful wish to have strangled Richard in her own womb. Matching her in emotion, Elizabeth shrieked “Where are my children?” in a particularly disturbing way.

The drums sounded briefly then fell silent to allow Richard to explain that he would “thus… drown your exclamations”. He was not really bothered by this challenge, a nonchalance reinforced by his high position relative to the women.

After hearing his mother’s final bitter words, Richard tried to persuade Elizabeth to gain her daughter’s consent to marry him. She, like Anne, had no texture to her anger. It was all on one high note, a slight weakness in the performance.

There was sarcasm in her suggestion that he should send her daughter, young Elizabeth, a “pair of bleeding hearts” engraved with the names of her dead brother princes. But Richard was confident in dealing with a woman he considered his inferior. There was no flicker of weakness that might have made him more interesting at this point. He was, if anything, too perfectly assured of himself.

The only hint of extreme emotion came when he threatened that without his proposed marriage to young Elizabeth the land would fall prey to “death, desolation, ruin and decay”.

But it was clear, even after he kissed her, that he would not be getting his own way. Perhaps Richard’s comical misogyny reinforced this impression.

The king made preparations for battle. He dispatched Catesby, turned round to address Ratcliffe, then after a while swivelled at the waist to look back at Catesby and ask him why he had not departed. This was the first indication of his increasing lack of attention.

Richard’s accusations of treachery against Stanley were mild and measured. He hit a messenger and then, realising he had been brought good news, gave the man his purse.

The mixture of favourable and unfavourable news meant that pressure was increasing on Richard, but he was not yet in inescapable peril.

After a brief scene in which we heard that Queen Elizabeth wanted Richmond to marry her daughter (4.5), we saw Buckingham being led off to the execution block (5.1).

Potent

Our first look at Richmond (Jack Bannell again) showed him to be a potent presence (5.2), which was a necessary counterbalance to Richard’s energy. In order to believe in Richmond’s eventual victory, he had to be at least as charismatic a figure as his opponent.

The strain began to show as Richard prepared for the battle at Bosworth (5.3). He became very impatient with the setting of his tent. The second time he gave the order “Up with the tent!” he shouted angrily.

The appearances by Richard and Richmond within the scene were rearranged so that there was no rapid swapping between them. The two split sequences for each character were united into one continuous sequence.

This meant that Richard fell asleep on his mattress at one corner of the space, accompanied by slumbering soldiers, their heads bowed, collected around three of the stage pillars. Richmond then made his preparations before going to sleep on his mattress in the opposite corner.

The dream sequence began as Richard awoke to find his legs and arms completely healthy. He examined their straightness and stood upright, a transformation that indicated that he was now in a dream world.

Then in a magical, masterful stroke, one of the soldiers raised his head, took off his cloak and showed himself to be the ghost of Henry VI, played by the same actor (Andrew Macbean) who had represented the dead king’s body on the pallet.

Other soldiers rose from their sleep, their faces lit in an eerie blue light, and revealed themselves to be Clarence, Rivers, Grey, Hastings, Anne (dressed in white) and Buckingham.

Possibly to prevent the boy actors from being up too late at night, The Duchess appeared in lieu of the princes, which to make sense only required one word to be changed: “Let us them be lead within thy bosom”.

The ghosts did not address any blessings to Richmond, who continued to slumber in the other corner.

Richard woke from his dream, but his lengthy reaction to it was too rushed and lacked depth. There was scope here for a more detailed examination of the twists in his conscience provoked by the visions of his victims.

Richmond awoke and mentioned that he had been visited by the ghosts and that they had urged him on to victory. This was a satisfactory treatment for those familiar with the play who could imagine the missing elements. But anyone seeing the play for the first time would have missed out on the alternation between the ghosts’ condemnations of Richard and their kind words for his opponent.

By this point the swords “hung up for monuments” had been taken down from the columns and were being deployed once again as weapons of war. Their retrieval became a neat indication of the decay of the state from peace to war.

Richmond addressed his soldiers in preparation for battle, but then Richard delivered his battle oration to us the audience, still considering us to be his confederates. Richard drooped his raised sword to the ground when he heard that Stanley and his men would not be joining him.

When we saw Richard looking lost, the famous “A horse, a horse…” was hastily delivered and not laboured over, suiting its status within the text rather than its theatrical fame, as Mackay tried not to emphasise the line (5.4).

The final fight saw Richmond, in a full suit of shiny armour and carrying a large, unwieldy halberd, swiping clumsily and ineffectually at Richard, who was armed only with a sword.

Richard deftly outmanoeuvred him and seemed set for an easy victory. But Richmond had assistance. One of his men cut Richard’s leg from behind causing him to stumble, enabling Richmond to stab him in the back. Richard lay with his feet and arms twitching in the air, as if his nervous system had gone into spasm from the blow to the spine.

There was a hint that the multiple injuries inflicted on Richard were an echo of the recent discovery of the real King Richard’s skeleton and the conclusions about the manner of his death drawn from the forensic analysis of his remains.

The bloody dog was dead, and the spiky crown was retrieved from Richard’s head by Stanley and presented to the victorious Richmond.

Conclusions

This was director Andrew Hilton’s second go at a Shakespeare history play. Shakespeare At The Tobacco Factory’s emerging style, hiring in a reasonably famous outsider for the lead role and surrounding him with the company’s regulars, proved an excellent model on which to base the story of an overreaching tragic figure like Richard, as the structure of the casting reflected the structure of the play.

The particular circumstances of the space and the company permitted John Mackay to deliver a very distinctive and consequently unforgettable Richard.

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