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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Rylance’s Richard

Richard III, The Globe, 28 July 2012

Mark Rylance’s Richard was a very special creation. Rather than a nascent tyrant, a bubbling cauldron of frustration hemmed in by physical deformity, this Richard was overwhelmingly weak, with a vague passivity that made him seem at times almost withdrawn.

So when he began his campaign of politic conquest, it was characterised by a sad, depressed cruelty. Only the rarest of outbursts hinted at the fire, not of bloody ambition, but of some deep-seated unhappiness. His was an arctic winter of discontent that had frozen both his body and spirit.

He appeared for his opening soliloquy with flowers in his hat band, a victorious wreath that he offered to a groundling singled out as a “wanton ambling nymph”. Where one would expect snarls and a viperish grin, he merely gave an absent smile.

Richard’s weakness was comedic, which made it easier to derive humour from his outrageous audacity. His deadpan contradictions got lots of laughs.

But playing Richard that way could only be made to work if everyone else in the play was weaker than him.

Therefore his fiercest opponent, Margaret, was cut entirely. The excision of this key character was a vital step, because Rylance’s Richard could only have crumpled under the weight of her withering disdain.

Without Margaret’s galvanising effect on the other female characters, the power of the women in the play generally was also diminished. Anne and Elizabeth were portrayed by Johnny Flynn and Samuel Barnett respectively as weak and vacillating. Their characterisations were less effectual than most contemporary actresses would have made them. James Garnon’s Duchess of York was almost comic as she hunched over and floated about the stage, her feet invisible beneath her wide dress.

Even when Anne was angry, her ire failed to rouse a commensurate response. When she spat at Richard to rebuff his advances in 1.2, his reaction to this assault came after a delay, as if he were only marginally engaged in what was happening around him.

The male characters were not much more effective. The sickly Edward IV (Colin Hurley) was pale as a sheet and wheezed like a dying man after his every line.

Edward seemed at peace after having reconciled his family. But when he heard of Clarence’s (Liam Brennan) death and received a request for pardon from Dorset (Ben Thompson), he became troubled at his double standards over “poor Clarence” whom he had sentenced to death. This emotional pain helped to finish him off.

Buckingham (Roger Lloyd Pack) was the only personality to prove a match for Richard. As a result, in the balcony scene where Richard refused the crown, he looked more like Richard’s carer than this friend.

The weak or absent women and Richard’s faded strength meant that the production was characterised by a low level of energy, which was punctured on only two occasions by Richard’s outbursts.

After Richard’s re-entry in 3.4 he sat at the end of a table nearest the audience. Continuously nursing his withered hand rather than making eye contact with anyone else, he asked what fate should befall the traitors who had used witchcraft against him.

Hastings’ (Paul Chahidi) comment “If they have done this thing, my gracious lord” was the detonator that sparked Richard’s explosive “If?!” Given his previous quietness and reticence, this outburst was all the more forceful.

Richard returned to his former subdued self until Buckingham demanded the earldom promised to him (4.2). The king’s irritation erupted into another fiery explosion of temper, reminding Buckingham that he was “not in the giving vein today.”

If Richard was harbouring a seething discontent within him, it was most frequently expressed in casual low-key cruelty.

After being crowned, Richard sat and held his wife’s hand as he explained why he had to have her killed. She shed tears which Richard himself wiped off and smeared into his own eyes saying “Tear-falling pity dwells not in this eye”. He took the ring from Anne’s hand and gave it to Tyrrell (Paul Chahidi again) as the token he would need to gain access to murder the princes.

All of this heartless behaviour came from a man who was still outwardly quiet and strangely unassuming.

The only other notable feature of Richard’s character to be brought out by the production was his extreme vulnerability to expressions of real love. At the end of their long scene together (4.4) Elizabeth pretended to assent to Richard’s plan to marry her daughter. She sealed the agreement with a passionate kiss that caused Richard to collapse.

This strange turn of events could be explained as Richard being overcome by the power of a spirited woman’s freely offered affection, in contrast with the compelled love and obedience he was accustomed to receiving from those he manipulated. Surrounded by a cocoon of extorted love, the merest touch of the real thing was more than he could bear.

Richard declined with clearly signposted indications of mental frailty. He began to make mistakes, such as calling for Catesby (Peter Hamilton Dyer) when he was standing right beside him, and then not instructing him with his errand. When Richard said “My mind is changed” it implied decay and change for the worse.

On Bosworth Field he commented on his missing “alacrity of spirit” (5.3). He soon fell asleep in his chair at the start of the dream sequence.

Buckingham, Clarence, the princes, Hastings and Anne appeared, their faces painted white and framed by all-encompassing white sheets knotted over their heads. They spoke their curses from the tiring house doorway.

This prepared the way for the final battle between Richmond (James Garnon again) and Richard, who in a nice touch had his withered hand encased in armour but wore no gauntlet on his good hand.

As they battled with swords, Richard temporarily gained an advantage over his rival.

But then his victims, who had that night haunted his dreams, appeared once again as waking visions. With no ghostly trappings, the dead walked the stage as they did in life, re-enacting their interactions with Richard.

The princes with played with daggers and Hastings bowed to him. Finally, Richard caught sight of Anne and knelt to offer her his sword, an echo of their previous encounter in which he had taunted her with her lack of willingness to kill him.

The fatal sword was then taken by Richmond who stuck it into Richard’s back: game over.

In the light of Richard’s mental decline and their lack of spooky attire, these final visions were most likely delusions drawn from memory rather than yet another ghostly visitation.

Conclusions

For all its quirks, the production achieved a high degree of internal consistency. The ending was satisfying because it summarised the entire trajectory of Richard’s character. He had become a highly-driven monster through his inability to deal with past traumas. His ultimate defeat was brought about, not by a stronger opponent, but by a haunting vision from this same past. He literally and metaphorically handed victory to Richmond.

Richard III – Globe to Globe

Richard III, The Globe, 29 April 2012

With their costumes and props delayed in transit, The National Theatre of China had to make do with makeshift replacements to keep the show running. But this minor inconvenience did nothing to dim either the spectacle or the audience’s reaction to this Mandarin production.

It was remarkable for its treatment of the play both structurally and stylistically.

An extensive prologue depicted the background to the main story.

The banners of the warring houses of Lancaster and York engaged in symbolic battle. One banner forced the other to the ground, marking the Yorkist victory. Edward IV was crowned and dressed in the yellow robe of state, his subjects bowing in traditional Chinese obeisance.

Richard (Zhang Dongyu) turned to face us, his stare hinting at his dark thoughts. Three witches borrowed from Macbeth, complete with chappy fingers on their skinny lips, prophesied to him that the king would be deposed by someone with a name containing the letter G.

Richard whispered this prophecy to the king, after which the main action of the plan began.

Zhang Dongyu was the only actor whose name was specifically linked to a part. His Richard was not physically deformed, but he occasionally twisted his body into a contortion to express Richard’s warped character.

Many minor characters, including the Duchess of York were cut, as were sequences such as the attempted wooing of Queen Elizabeth’s daughter. There was only one prince, played by a young woman who trembled fearfully on hearing Richard refer to the Tower of London. And of Queen Elizabeth’s relatives, only Rivers was present to offer her support.

The role of Margaret was expanded so that she became a regular feature on stage gloating over the deaths of those she had cursed. Leaning on a staff and sporting long, jet black hair, she spluttered her curses in a coarse voice.

Another important aspect of this production was its distinctive Chinese styling.

This ranged in extent from minor details, such as Hastings performing Tai Chi at his home, through to the acrobatics of the murderers sent to kill Clarence. They somersaulted and then creeped their way into Clarence’s chamber, not noticing Brackenbury until, circling round him, they looked up and saw him peering down at them.

Clarence’s death was marked by the killers draping a large black cloth over him and then walking him away to a drone of drums. The same murderers returned to dispatch Hastings and Buckingham in the identical manner.

But the most striking stylistic effect was the use of the conventions of Beijing opera in the portrayal of Lady Anne.

Instead of accompanying the funeral cortege of Henry VI, she shuffled onstage alone to the sound of percussive clicks, her hands in a graceful pose, before scattering funereal white flowers on the ground.

She spoke in an intensely beautiful manner, her voice issuing pure musical tones that despite their clipped restraint, pierced the air like darts.

When Richard tried to woo her, she spat at him, but even that gesture was restrained and stylised, to the point of looking polite. Richard rubbed the invisible spittle into his face as if it were aftershave.

Lady Anne took Richard’s sword and stood behind him with the weapon raised above her head, but could not strike him, nor could she respond when he pointed his own sword at his chest, inviting her to kill him. Even at these violent moments, Lady Anne maintained her poetic poise.

Her second appearance, lamenting her life married to Richard, saw Lady Anne in another wonderfully stylised sequence just as gripping as the first.

Although very different to standard western stage conventions, there was something about the Beijing opera style that felt ideally suited to such scenes in Shakespeare.

Voice and movement were all carefully arranged to express poetically the innermost thoughts and feelings of the character. It did not look in any way naturalistic.

But standard western Shakespeare already makes use of the stylised rhythmic effects inherent in the text, such as iambic pentameter and rhyming couplets, which are themselves far from naturalistic speech.

The Lady Anne sequences could be seen as the Chinese translation’s way of rendering, and perhaps even superseding, the aesthetic qualities of the language of the English original.

The production contained some other interesting touches.

The scene in which the citizens of London discussed the death of the king and the succession was staged with two Chinese street hawkers. They cried out selling their wares, before meeting in the centre of the stage to discuss events. The hawkers then proceeded onwards, crying out as before.

Buckingham ventured into the yard to rouse the groundlings to support the pious Richard, who stood on a table fingering prayer beads accompanied by two holy men, making us the Londoners.

When Tyrell returned from murdering the princes, he crept in wearing a long coat under which another man crouched with just his head visible, possibly representing the fact that Tyrell had subcontracted the job to other murderers.

Tyrell was now wearing red gloves, symbolising shed blood. Richard wore these gloves for the rest of the performance.

As the play entered its final scenes, we saw Richmond for the first time as he and Richard engaged in their first skirmish.

Richard fell asleep on a table and was tormented by the ghosts of his victims, who stood over him and cursed him. This caused him to fall from the table and seek shelter under it.

Flags flew over the stage once again as the concluding battle resulted in Richard lying injured centre stage.

Anyone familiar with the play would have recognised the repeated Chinese phrases directly translating Richard’s famous final lines.

He climbed onto the throne and stood holding his crown in one hand above his head. Once again, he called for a horse, while Richmond and his men watched in formal array.

Richmond drew his sword run it through Richard, and shortly after the soldiers speared him in one swift movement. Richard slowly collapsed on to the throne and Richmond gave him a push off onto the ground. Richard continued to roll, coming to a halt downstage.

Richmond placed the crown on his own head and was dressed in the yellow robe of state. He took his place on the throne to the sound of ominous droning music in an exact replay of the coronations of both Edward and Richard.

After a pause, the voice of Margaret could be offstage and Richard rose from the ground briefly to repeat his piteous demand for his horse. And with that the play was done.

This staging of the end of the play hinted that there is no such thing as a new era in history and that new beginnings are always haunted by the past that gave rise to them.

While the production was compelling and powerful, it could have been even more spectacular with the company’s own costumes and props.

After the rapturous reception they received, The National Theatre of China has every incentive to return at some point and present this production in its full colours.

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.

Searching for Shaikh al-Zubair

It is the East study session, The Globe, 11 February 2012

The Globe’s multi-language complete works Shakespeare festival, Globe To Globe, is being accompanied by a series of three study days that examine the cultural context of some of the productions.

The first of them looked at Shakespeare and the Middle East. It included a talk by director Sulayman al-Bassam and a practical workshop with Khayaal Theatre Company.

An introduction on the history of Shakespeare performance in the region highlighted that Shakespeare had arrived in the Middle East relatively late, with performances only dating back to the late nineteenth century. Besides the usual Hamlets and Romeo & Juliets, it appears that Othello was a popular text.

But despite coming late to this part of the world, Shakespeare’s plays have proved to be an extremely useful resource.

Translation of foreign works, particularly Shakespeare, was traditionally used as way of getting round censorship.

And as Sulayman al-Bassam outlined in his contribution, Shakespeare performance in the Middle East still serves agendas other than the purely artistic.

The Arab trilogy

His Sabab theatre company has produced a trilogy of Arab Shakespeare plays: The Al-Hamlet Summit, which sees the action taking place within a ruling family in crisis; Richard III, An Arab Tragedy, which transfers the action to the Middle East, and The Speaker’s Progress, which uses a production of Twelfth Night in a fictional dictatorship to investigate the relationship between creativity and oppression.

This obviously involved a considerable amount of rewriting and adaptation to the extent that the plays constitute new texts and are published as such.

Some adjustments to an Islamic context were also made. For instance, the murder of Clarence in Richard III involved him being drowned in ablution water rather than wine.

Sulayman had some fascinating stories to tell about the company’s experiences of working in the region. But he also regretted that the majority of the performances took place outside the Arab world.

It was strange to hear someone talking about recent dealings with government censors. One red-pen-wielding bureaucrat questioned why in a particular scene Hamlet was not centre stage – an anecdote that suggests that some censors are in fact frustrated theatre directors.

Audience reactions can also be extreme. Sabab’s Richard III was performed in the Emirates to an audience consisting of 200 princesses. Their visceral responses to the drama (clapping at odd moments, leaving the auditorium to discuss the action and then returning) were prompted by onstage events that reflected their own recent family histories.

Actors are familiar with stage fright. But when in 2008 the Sabab company heard at the last moment that their performance in Damascus was going to be attended by Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and his wife, first night nerves transformed into genuine terror at displeasing the country’s autocrat.

There was relief when Bashar al-Assad responded to some of the political comment in the play by leading the applause. However, a forgotten detail in the production proved problematic.

Towards the end of Richard III a list of battle dead is read out. This adaptation replaced this with a list of recent assassination victims, which unfortunately included the name of a Lebanese journalist widely thought to have been killed by the Syrian secret service.

Bashar al-Assad’s face turned to thunder when the name was read out. He rose from his seat and left – a sequence of events familiar to anyone who has seen another of Shakespeare’s plays.

What was ostensibly a production of Richard III had turned weirdly into a real-life enactment of a key scene from Hamlet, with the Syrian president in the role of Claudius being “frighted with false fire”.

All this raises some interesting points.

Subversive political Shakespeare is an upside of bardolatory

Sulayman described Shakespeare as a ‘Trojan horse’ and a ‘mask’. The process of bardolatory transformed Shakespeare in the UK from writer to state-sanctioned demi-god. This in turn made Shakespeare into a high-status global brand, just like the Mont Blanc pens and Maybach cars with which autocratic elites like to surround themselves.

Royal endorsement in the UK is taken to indicate the brand’s innate conservatism, so that Shakespeare is avidly consumed by the world’s 1% as sign of their cultivation. For instance, the RSC theatre season is listed by Debretts as part of the ‘social season’ of high society.

But little do these elites realise that Shakespeare can, in the right hands and with a little tweaking, be rendered incredibly subversive, as Bashar al-Assad discovered to his dismay.

While bardolatory is rightly criticised for warping our perception of Shakespeare, the unassailable brand status it has afforded to the plays provides useful cover for theatre-makers with something subversive to say.

Can adaptations like this be described as appropriations?

The responses to Sulayman’s work have been intense and the envy of western theatre-makers who struggle to engage with their secure and comfortable audiences.

Shakespeare lived in an autocratic police state and had to deal with government censors.

Therefore, the cultural distance the works have to travel from 16th/17th century England to modern Britain is in some ways greater than the distance they travel to the contemporary Middle East.

Looked at another way, western productions and adaptations that try to shoehorn political meaning into the plays, for example the recent NT Hamlet that had surveillance cameras looking down onto the stage, are appropriating the plays from their original setting every bit as much as Middle Eastern productions. The latter perhaps represent continuity of setting rather than radical translocation.

The term ‘appropriation’ implies that Shakespeare is the property of our culture and that he is merely loaned out to other cultures. We should either credit all productions as being equally valid or describe all contemporary Shakespeare as appropriations of one sort or another.

The Globe to Globe festival reminds us that the violent world Shakespeare portrayed is immediately recognisable by many people as their own modern world. UK audiences today look on the history plays as quaint historical works about a long-forgotten past, with the occasional faint echo of relevance to events in far-flung places. Now Shakespeare is coming back at us from those far-flung places.

Practical session

The afternoon was taken up with a series of practical exercises in which we playfully explored the many ways in which Shakespeare neatly dovetails into Arabic culture.

Very much a storytelling culture, the Arab world also values rhythm and metre in language, which made Shakespeare prized.

However, given that Shakespeare drew on existing stories for his plays, it is difficult to say whether Arabic responses have been to Shakespeare’s individuality as a dramatist or to the sources on which he drew.

Arabic storytelling has stock characters such as Fools and djinns that parallel such characters as Feste and Puck, as well as the standard characters of romantic stories such as Romeo & Juliet.

The practical exercises and games introduced us to these themes and culminated in the group recreating the demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, with one side using Shakespeare quotes to protest and another to assert state authority. This assumed a detailed and accessible knowledge of Shakespeare, which was a bit thin on the ground, but was fun nonetheless.

By the end of the day, we understood why many in the Arab world, like the Germans and Klingons, regard Shaikh al-Zubair as one of their own.

Attack of the Gloucesteraptor

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.

Compliment

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.

Evaporated

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.

Drowned

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.

Balloons

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.

Strawberries

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.

Screen

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.

Interval

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.

Nightshirt

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.

Coffee

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.

Bones

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.

Conclusions

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.

Breaking news: Boris Johnson to annex Epidamnum

Richard III/The Comedy of Errors, Hampstead Theatre, 25/29 June 2011

Propeller’s double-bill of Richard III and The Comedy of Errors looked much better in the bigger space of the Hampstead Theatre than they had done on the more cramped stage of the Watermill near Newbury where I had first seen them.

The larger stage particularly suited Propeller’s expansive physical comedy, which was the highlight of both productions.

A bigger theatre also meant a bigger audience, and the laughs and squeals from the more substantial Hampstead crowds must have lifted the mood of the cast.

It was very enjoyable to watch Propeller’s bright colour palette being splashed across a much broader canvas.

Performing in the capital meant some specific London references were used in the productions. They managed to work in mentions of Boris Johnson, Camden Council and the Oyster card.

More crucially, the scene in Richard III where the crookback encountered the mayor and citizens of London saw the audience being addressed as if they were the crowd that Richard was trying to sway.

A second view of Propeller’s Comedy of Errors provided an insight into how some of the comic touches in the production had originated in a close reading of the text.

The police officer who arrested various of the characters wore leather trousers. Every time he took a step, a duck whistle sounded, creating the impression that his leather trousers were continuously squeaking.

This was derived from Dromio of Syracuse’s description of him in 4.2, which stated among other things that the officer was “in a case of leather”.

At every mention of the gold chain that Antipholus of Ephesus had commissioned, a percussion instrument made a ‘ding’ noise.

The textual origin of this lies in another line from Dromio of Syracuse in 4.3:

Dromio of Syracuse

Not on a band, but on a stronger thing;
A chain, a chain! Do you not hear it ring?

Adriana

What, the chain?

Dromio of Syracuse

No, no, the bell: ’tis time that I were gone:
It was two ere I left him, and now the clock
strikes one.

Adriana’s mistaken but understandable assumption that Dromio was referring to the chain ringing was incorporated into the production so that each reference to the chain was accompanied by a ringing sound.

On a general level, a repeat look at Propeller’s Richard III was more enjoyable than the first view. Familiarity with their gory, light-hearted take on the play meant that it no longer disappointed. It was possible to appreciate the production as another of their comedies rather than regret their failure to use the unique perspective provided by their all-male cast to explore the play seriously.

But on a positive note, another view of their Comedy of Errors brought home the intricate detail that had gone into the staging of the physical comedy.

The chaos of riotous onstage moments relies, ironically, on meticulous order and preplanning.

Another enjoyable feature of my second look at The Comedy of Errors was a proper chance to see and hear the cast singing a medley of eighties songs that formed the background to their charity collection.

The cast used up most of the interval in that production to raise money for charity, when they could have stayed backstage having a rest.

Propeller’s sell-out London run was followed by an announcement that their next season will include a reboot of their 2005 production of The Winter’s Tale and a new version of a play they have previously performed, Henry V.

Expect tickets for their return visit to the Hampstead to go fast.

The Schlocky Horror History Show

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.

Carouse

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.

Tailors

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.

Cocktails

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.

Cryptic

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.

For a few dollars more

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.

Bags

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.

Specimen

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.

Badger

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.

Dream

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.

Conclusions

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.

body bag