Tom Mothersdale seems to have a gift for playing slimy, sadistic villains – his Tinker in Katie Mitchell’s Cleansed was obsessive, methodical and self-hating – a performance that still sits with me. So Richard III fits him like a leg brace, and oh, he’s terribly good. Hunched over, licking his lips, brushing tangles of greasy hair behind his ear, he reminds me of Heath Ledger’s Joker – and he’s every bit as psychopathic. He kills gleefully, biting ears and licking blood from the fingers of his glove. He hurls himself around the perimeter of the stage, restlessly territorial and rarely offstage for more than a couple of minutes at a time. There’s a boyish petulance to this Richard, too, and a vulnerability which comes out when in the company of his mother. On the night before battle, you feel he is genuinely frightened, losing his grip on reality, and… what was that? Did I just feel a pang of sympathy? Mothersdale is such a commanding actor, and this is one of those performances for which critics like to reserve words like ‘bravura,’ ‘powerhouse,’ and ‘tour-de-force’.
What doesn’t sit so well with me is the world that Mothersdale’s Richard inhabits. The production has a curiously old-school feel to it; Chiara Stephenson’s set is a dark, towering, curved castle wall with a row of rotating mirrored panels which multiply the actors, or conceal ghostly figures stalking the corridors of power behind. Elliot Griggs lights the circular stage with a ring of LED battens overhead (a conspicuously hi-tech looking structure amongst all the medieval murkiness) and in nocturnal shades of violet and lavender – atmospheric, for sure, but spend a prolonged period of time with the scenography and it quickly becomes oppressively gloomy.
Director John Haidar keeps things pretty straight-laced for the most part, but what flourishes there are are either laughably corny (the ghosts of Richard’s victims take it in turn to blow white ghost-powder on his face in a dream sequence) or effortfully trendy (there’s a nerve-twanging glitch of red light and noise every time a character feels the sting of a knife blade – in a glib mood, I might call this the Ned Bennet school of directing, though I can’t deny it does its tension-ratcheting job). The big battle scene, however, is great – a headrush of flickering light and pounding sound, corpses popping up like museum exhibits behind glass, Mothersdale flailing about in wet soil and hurling it at his ghosts. Special kudos to the operators and DSM Izzy Circou, who orchestrate it all with perfect musicality.
Textually, one senses a rigorous dramaturgical hand at work. To me (someone relatively unfamiliar with the play), certain decisions shine through. Richard’s relationship with his mother feels particularly pointed – in one Act IV scene, the Duchess of York (Eileen Nicholas) has a line which, amongst the torrent of verse shot like arrows, lodges itself in my mind: ‘from forth the kennel of my womb hath crept/ a hell-hound’. By the end of the scene, the Duchess of York, borrowing some of the excised Margaret’s lines, has cursed the dog Richard, who cowers in the corner, trying to mask just how much this has disturbed him. It’s a scene, messy with resentment and disgust, that’s just captivating to watch, the action pushed into corners of the lip of the Bristol Old Vic’s stage so as to threaten to spill off the stage altogether.
What I suppose I’m getting at: there are nice bits, there are very good bits, there are annoying bits, there are tedious bits. I realise with some dismay that I’ve written a bit of a by-numbers review here; as though the show were a checklist of production elements, each to be given a pass or a fail, like I could tally them up at the end and work out if the production was any good.
But that’s because this Richard III feels like a by-numbers production – technically flawless, peerlessly acted, but with familiar (tired?) aesthetics and beats, and diminishing returns; too easily shrugged off, never exceeding the sum of its parts. Scenes hurry past, attendants in dark suits enter and exit, people talk importantly about important things and enunciate their Ts very well. A wave of generic theatre-sound rises before each scene and abruptly cuts out. Blood packs burst left, right and centre and there are gasps from the audience, but the special effects can’t help but feel to me like a band-aid solution for a larger problem – one to do with how we make Shakespeare (particularly those heavy, context-reliant history plays) exciting, engaging, readable and not just *relevant* (oh, how I bristle at the word), but truly contemporary. On the line, ‘this son of York,’ Richard points at the actor in question to make sure we know who’s who, but I still lose my grip on the story half way through. During the interval I skim read a plot synopsis on Wikipedia. I’ve been here before.
Richard III plays at Alexandra Palace Theatre before returning to Bristol Old Vic and touring to Manchester, Oxford and Northampton until 25 May. More info here.