“Alas, why would you heap these cares on me?” says a duke struggling with self-doubt, halfway through Shakespeare’s history play. Of course, humility is just a performance for Richard, a crafty and scheming murderer, and clearly a convincing one at that; his audience, the Lord Mayor of London, pledges to support him as England’s next king.
It might have been expected of director Garry Hynes’s excellent production for Druid, in association with the Abbey Theatre, to hark back to DruidShakespeare: a marathon production of the Henriad dressed in subtle Irish knits and played on an earthy stage fit for The Playboy of the Western World. Here, designer Francis O’Connor has created a vast dungeon, his costuming – co-designed by Doreen McKenna – shimmering with dusky hues. We’re in a more fantastic drama.
Richard, disfigured and neglected, is twisted by Aaron Monaghan’s meticulous performance into an absorbing villain plotting to seize the crown. Even when his marriage proposal to Siobhán Cullen’s grieving Lady Anne doesn’t go to plan, he cries piteously as if trying to gaslight her: “Why dost thou spit at me?”.
In the company of others, Richard acts oblivious. But left alone, he relishes in the details of a wicked plan, one that involves killing John Olohan’s sickly King Edward IV, and locking up his heirs in the Tower of London. This is such a thrilling conspiracy, even lord Hastings, whose integrity might be admired in other productions, has been made self-important and rotund by Garrett Lombard as set for a bloody fall from hubris.
Leave it to Hynes, a director more at home with the rogues of Martin McDonagh’s comedies, to bring out delectable gallows humour in an epic war drama. When two murderers (Seán McGinley and Frank Blake) are dispatched to kill a prisoner, their conflicts of conscience are emphasised more as hesitations of pathetic henchmen. One earl (Peter Daly) finds himself in the exact spot as a murdered king, just in time to meet his own death. Most delightfully, Marty Rea’s executioner Catesby is so detached, he’ll amuse himself with killing a well-respected man, “For they account his head upon the bridge”.
The production does lose some energy towards the end, only because Richard doesn’t always have the opponents to match. Jane Brennan’s Queen Elizabeth and Ingrid Craigie’s Duchess of York are surprisingly tame, though marshalled as they are by Marie Mullen’s witchy Queen Margaret. But the final battle is extraordinary, in choreography by David Bolger that can convey as much with imaginative movement as the effects of a big-budget action film.
A surprise take on the ending comes as a jolt, but completely in keeping with DruidShakespeare, where the best kings tend to come from the people.
DruidShakespeare’s Richard III is on at Abbey Theatre until 27th October. More info here.