Our eponymous villain sits at a table spinning a top, caught in a supposedly private moment, as the audience takes their seats. This affords us ample time to ogle our leather-clad, hard-as-nails usurper. Tonight he’s gnarled and well past his prime, if he ever have had one. He scowls. He glares. Before a word is uttered, his card is marked. We’re going for biblically evil. And he’s chained, too. Greg Hick’s Richard III wears the symbols of his affliction like jewellery, or a badge of honour, his good hand yanking on a chain that pulls his crippled foot forward.
That most famous of openings is launched like a surprise assault on the barely settled audience, Hick’s staccato snarls chewing up the lines and spitting them out. He’s not interested in conspiring with us; he barely tries to charm. What this interpretation lacks in subtlety and psychological insight, it makes up for in backbone – for that’s what Hick’s performance is in a production that sometimes feels like it doesn’t know what it wants to be. An RSC veteran, Hicks holds the whole lot together. Even when, in his gangsta-chic outfit, things veer dangerously close to TV cop show villain, he’s still totally in control and coherent.
The rest of the production feels strangely incoherent. The set mixes the Arcola’s semi-industrial environs with subtle Middle Age touches; bare light bulbs with period lighting. King Edward appears to be an Edwardian, while the young prince is a full-on tween. Richard, I guess, sits somewhere in the ’80s. The sound moves from the bottled giggling of girls, suggesting the gaiety of court from which Richard is excluded, to blasted rock music as the interval arrives. Mixed period productions have their place, of course, but here, every time these choices threaten to throw some light on the piece, things peter out instead.
At times, this production does burst briefly into life courtesy of some lovely character performances. Annie Firbank could illuminate a long wait for a bus on a wet Wednesday afternoon. Her exhausted, elderly queen beautifully conveys the affectionate but world-weary attitude of those who have seen too much of life, often with just a look. Jim Bywater does fine work as King Edward, and his bumbling Mayor of London brings some much need levity and contemporaneity. And the usually only functional Catesby comes close to stealing the show for me – Matthew Sim creates a coke-snorting, Karl Lagerfeld channelling, pint-sized bundle of evil that’s a joy to watch, amid what – thanks to RIII’s large cast and inherent confusing-ness – sometimes feels like a revolving door of middle-aged white men saying things about things we’re meant to already know about.
There’s no getting away from the play’s women problem, though, and indeed, one of the most pleasing things about this production is that it doesn’t try to. The director affords Margaret (Jane Bertist), the Duchess of York (Firbank), Queen Elizabeth (Sara Powell) and Lady Anne (Georgina Rich) their dignity, and all three are played with gravitas and intelligence, with wailing kept to a minimum and weird-witchy incantations completely avoided. Richard’s always-troubling ‘wooing’ of Anne is played straight for terror, and his even more nauseating bid for the young princess’ hand even more so. When Richard asks “Was ever woman in this humour woo’d?”, every woman in the audience mentally goes “No, mate, never.” Here, the women are allowed to be simply afraid for their lives – and everyone else’s too – without being put through psychological contortions in an attempt to make it read as real. It’s further testament to the solid, straightforwardness of a production that ultimately fails to catch fire.
Richard III is a the Arcola Theatre until June 6th. For more details, click here.