Reviews Bristol Published 26 February 2013

Richard III

Tobacco Factory ⋄ 14th February - 30th March 2013

A pervading sense of dread.

Geraldine Giddings

John Mackay forgoes the temptation to play Richard III as a calculating Machiavellian climber. His Richard is something more singular. There’s a glitter in his eyes and an unexpected lurch in his gait that gives us a glimpse of a ruthlessness that is more abstract than cunning, one that transcends a pure quest for power, revealing an inhumane lack of remorse, teetering on the brink of a contempt for humanity itself.

Whispered asides peppered with sudden expostulations leave the audience on the back foot when trying to follow this Richard’s veering logic, and as the plot thickens, and his treacheries quickly mount up, a feeling of fascinated dread pervades the audience.

Performed in the round on the boards, this intimate production opens Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory’s 2013 season. It is quite a feat to fit a cast of 20 onto the Tobacco Factory stage, and therefore it is perhaps through necessity that Matthew Graham’s effective lighting design often beams into the audience, inviting us into the court, into the action. We are often addressed directly in Richard’s witty or world-weary asides. The feeling of complicity is an uneasy one; we are witness to a villainy that comes from somewhere ‘other’ – from a character whose behaviour diverges subtly from a predictable course. It is appealing to begin with but because we are so close to it, both physically and emotionally, it becomes terrifying.

As Andrew Hilton’s prouction progresses, Richard’s toying cruelty becomes heavier, making way for grim compulsion. Courting the recently widowed Lady Anne, who is bringing her dead father-in-law – the former king – to burial, he pushes her to see whether she will break. Watching Mackay’s Richard feigning love for the helpless Anne (whilst admitting murder of her father and husband) is like watching a young boy pull the legs off an insect: there is a macabre fascination at play. This is not so during the much later scene in which Richard successfully commands the former Queen, Elizabeth that he will marry her remaining daughter (having already killed her sons, her husband and his own wife amongst others). Lisa Kay’s Elizabeth is wonderful during this wrought scene in which desolation on her part and utter ruthlessness on his serve to illustrate the situation in which England finds itself as the play nears its end – at the mercy of a madman.

Harriet de Winton’s design richly complements the production, particularly the costumes. Mackay is gaunt, with closely cropped white hair. His plain, black garb forms a contrast with the rest of the beautifully dressed cast – he doesn’t care about worldly wealth, and he knows that no amount of dressing up will make him physically attractive. A daub of black makeup beneath his staring eyes makes his face skull-like, evoking the death he wreaks upon his company, and again suggesting his ‘otherness.’ It also serves to remind us of that recent car park discovery, and that this gripping story has, perhaps, some basis in a tangible past. During the final battle, Richard’s adversary the Earl of Richmond (played rousingly by Jack Bannell) wears a strikingly beautiful coat richly embroidered in gold that fits him perfectly and complements his regal declarations, showing him to be every bit the kind of king that Richard is not.

The final fight is a work of art: Richard against Richmond, a vigorous and crucial dance between a terrible strength and a beautiful strength. Though the stage is small and the audience encroach, the choreography is tight and the actors highly skilled and well directed. Fight director John Sandeman (also playing a tight-lipped Rivers) explains in the programme notes that he has imagined Richard using the ‘guard of the boar’s tooth’ (Richard III’s crest was the boar), and ‘guard of the woman’ to taunt Richmond. Not a foot is out of place and the heavily armoured, weapon-wielding actors are visibly exhausted when the play ends, with Richard dead and Richmond crowned.


Geraldine Giddings

Based in the South West of England, Geraldine is especially interested in multi art-form performance, circus, storytelling, outdoor arts and childrens' theatre. She has worked with circus production company Cirque Bijou since 2006 and also freelances in production, development, project management and marketing. A Circus Arts Forum mentorship in reviewing circus performance was a starting point, and she also contributes to Total Theatre.

Richard III Show Info

Directed by Andrew Hilton

Cast includes John Mackay, Dorothea Myer-Bennett


Running Time 3 hours (including interval)



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