The Faction’s Richard III – a revival, of sorts, of their first production in 2008 – is a thrilling testament to the company and its ethos. It’s a vibrant, kinetic production that manages to cram its large (and impressively diverse) cast into the compact space of the New Diorama Theatre without (for the most part) feeling cluttered, and giving us a Richard that feels utterly contemporary without discarding any of those things that make it such a classic.
At its heart is a mercurial, sensuous performance by Christopher York as Richard. Barefoot and plainly attired, he has the casual look of a squaddie on leave: perfect for Richard, the soldier who has run out of wars to fight, and so must make his own, new conflicts. His deformity waxes and wanes according to circumstance and company – he coils and folds in response to his own evil or the scorn of others (he is never more hunched than in the presence of the mother who despises him – played with bitterness and tragic dignity by theatre veteran Carmen Munroe). It is both an affliction and a device, convenient when he wishes to play the innocent or the victim, but its transient nature suggests a mental malignance rather than any physical disfigurement.
One of Shakespeare’s most famous and compelling openers more often than not sees Richard on stage alone, delivering his soliloquy to an audience made complicit by his confidences. Here, he is set out as the slick politician and successful soldier from the start, delivering a rousing celebration of his brother’s triumph to a crowded stage, the corpse of his vanquished enemy at his feet. But as the citizens descend into a romantic revelry, he that is ‘not shap’d for sportive tricks’ is left isolated by such couplings. It is then he turns to us, his fellow voyeurs; since we, too, are left out of the fun, we are at least let in on his schemes.
York is supported by a talented ensemble, and the piece feels much more like a collaborative production than the one-man acting showcase it can sometimes become. Anna Maria Nabirye particularly impresses as Buckingham, suitably oleaginous when she needs to be but ultimately redeemed (and at the same time doomed) when she refuses to match Richard in villainy. Unusually, many of the male roles are not only cast as female – a not uncommon practice these days – but referred to as such, which gives a nice sense of women actually playing key roles in the drama, not just pretending to be men. This also adds a sexual frisson to the Buckingham/Richard dynamic, reinforced by the fact that, instead of the usual execution scene, Buckingham dies a more intimate, less dignified death – literally stabbed in the back by her king, who then cradles her dead body in the corner, indulging himself in remorse over his own treachery, until events call him back to the stage.
Sakuntala Ramanee and Winnie Imara both do well in the always tricky roles of Margaret and Anne, respectively, as does Kate Sawyer as Elizabeth – notably, the only one in any kind of historical costume, desperately standing on her royal dignity as her world begins to crumble.
There are no props and no set – the use of sound effects (courtesy of sound designer Lex Kosanke) is surprisingly, well, effective (only failing slightly in the Richard-Anne wooing scene when, with no visible blade to barter with between them, the recklessness and potential danger of Richard’s ‘take up the sword again or take up me’ strategy falls somewhat flat). Director Mark Leipacher choreographs his actors on the bare stage like dancers, and clearly relishes that the compact space of the New Diorama keeps his audience close: we are not watching this at any safe remove. The result is a production that feels immediate, physical and powerful.