Love and Madness’s production of Richard III was first staged at Riverside Studios last year. Despite being hampered by a severely miscast Sadie Frost – who no doubt added to the box office, but was massively detrimental to the play – it was an enjoyably slick take on a classic. Portraying Richard as a sharp suited spiv making his way by whatever means necessary in a court of braying, self-satisfied politicos, it felt like a timely production for these credit-crunch days. So I was intrigued to see how such a resolutely modern production would fare in a setting that positively drips with history: the Tower of London.
Staging Richard III in this particular setting is a bold but apt choice. So how does a play whose characters are so overshadowed by the Tower – the threat of it and its secrets – fare in the actual building? The answer is, amazingly well.
The modern dress actually makes it more resonant; performed in a country currently ruled by a bunch of poshos cruising on a lineage of privilege, the play seems more contemporary than ever, with Richard set apart less by his villainy than by his self-awareness of that villainy. The modern setting also helps overcome the challenges of a set doesn’t allow for bulky props or settings: instead of accompanying her dead husband’s body, Anne carries his newspaper obituary, while the Mayor is shown a Polaroid of Hastings’ head. Richard plots murder by mobile phone while his coronation is a choreographed photo opportunity. All touches, no doubt, added by necessity, but they are clever and effectively used – as is the backdrop of the Tower itself.
It’s impossible to review the play without at least partially reviewing the venue: rarely can site-specific theatre have been so well-served by its site. There can be few more imposing entrances to a theatre; the long walk from the main gates takes you through some of Britain’s most historical walkways, and you feel the Tower’s beauty and its power with every step. The hall itself is pure ‘medieval banquet chic’: the audience assembled in the round, on chairs pulled together, like honoured guests waiting to be entertained by a troupe of mummers. This sense of history made real is reinforced by the fact that there are Beefeaters – actual Beefeaters! – milling around as the audience are seated and leave. You don’t get that in the West End.
The production itself has changed much in the time it has been touring, and mostly for the better. (No Sadie Frost, for a start). Iarla McGowan’s Richard is a far more muscular incarnation than the original production’s Carl Prekopp. He takes a while to get into his stride but when he does he brings a pleasing rage and slyness to the role. He’s a bruiser willing to quite literally throw his weight around, reminding us that Richard is, first and foremost, a soldier who finds himself bored without a war. This physicality also helps with some of the more difficult plot points; Elizabeth’s quickly-wrung – if ultimately false – concession that he will be allowed to marry her daughter is much more understandable when she’s a moment from being throttled if she doesn’t agree.
As Elizabeth, Madeleine Hyland becomes more impressive as she disintegrates in grief; in power, her Queen is a tad insipid. Alex Barclay’s Buckingham is part Mandelson, part Campbell, all spin and sleaze: you can’t help being rather pleased when he gets his head cut off.
The rest of the cast ably take on multiples roles. Doing double duty as Anne and Catesby, Aimee Parkes brings a touching vulnerability to one and a crisp efficiency to the other, while Will Harrison-Wallace is more convincing as smug Hastings than as Clarence, though the latter is, of course, a much harder sell. David Hughes slopes around the edges of the stage as a sinister Tyrell, especially impressive in his standout scene where he plays both Rivers and his executioner. Gareth Llewelyn’s King Edward feels a little underpowered, as does Nicholas Kempsey’s uninspiring Richmond; though this may be deliberate. Perhaps seeing the play in the week England’s arts were staggering in the wake of the government’s slash and burn approach to funding made me overly cynical, but Richmond’s victory over Richard felt less like the beginning of a glorious golden age than the start of more of the same.
Because one thing the production brings out particularly well is that this is not Richard cutting a swathe through a sea of innocents, but a man who happens to be smarter and more ruthless than most ridding himself of enemies whose hands are no less bloody than his, and whose route to power was no more laudable. This circularity is reinforced by the appearance of Margaret (Kempsey again, far more persuasive in this role). In making her a drunken, hunchback cripple, she is not only the physical reminder of the court’s blood-soaked past, but a visual echo of Richard: it is she who looks like the bottled spider, the poisonous, bunch-backed toad.
Director Ben Kidd’s ruthless cuts to the text keep the play rattling along without detracting from it: the often boring ghost scene is reworked into a full-on hallucinogenic attack by all the ghosts on Richard at once; and Kidd’s also solved his problem with the final battle scene, which in the premier was a low point but here becomes a fitting end, as the characters flail about beneath the blows of invisible enemies while a desperate Richard scrambles and trips around them.
The set imposes some significant limitations: being dominated by pillars means that often, you can’t see completely what is going on. But what space they have is used extremely well. The cast work the room like politicians at a fund-raiser, lounging on windowsills behind the audience, swinging around pillars, playing out the action across the full length of the room. Occasional lapses of visibility are tiny niggles, a small price to pay to participate in what felt like a genuine event. Let’s hope we see more of its kind.
Love & Madness will also be staging Dario Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist at Waterloo East Theatre from 5 – 10 April 2011.