One of Shakespeare’s more widely-known historical tragedies, it’s very likely that the roots of the modern day slasher film are to be found in Richard III.
A dastardly, disfigured villain, who through Machiavellian plotting and pure psychopathy, kills both friends and enemies to lay his hands on his country’s crown, while darkly seducing a fair few women along the way? Move over Freddie Kruger and Leatherface.
The all-male theatre company Propeller have taken this aspect of Richard III to its logical conclusion by producing a suitably gore-filled, blood splattered adaptation. Handguns, chainsaws and machetes all feature in Propeller’s stunning production, which lays its sinister cards on the table right from the beginning – as the audience walks in, a collection of men wearing surgical masks, dressed all in white, are already stood on stage staring piercingly into the aisles.
As it turns out, the masked men double as a choir, producing a soundtrack of disconcertingly jaunty acapella folk tunes as Richard’s machinations take full effect. The staging is eerie, with discarded scaffolding scattered in a gloomy mist, while mobile screens are used to good effect through the play. As the titular Duke Of Gloucester, Richard Clothier is perfectly cast – the famous hunchback is there, together with a missing hand and a limp, but he possesses such a swagger and charm that it’s impossibly not to be captivated.
As is to be expected from a veteran of a Shakespearean theatre company, Clothier delivers the famous lines perfectly – the opening, self-pitying monologue strikes just the right tone, and Richard’s psychopathic tendencies are hinted at early on when his voice suddenly becomes a high-pitched squeak when it appears things aren’t going his way. Looking a tad like ’80s TV icon Max Headroom in a bikers jacket, Clothier makes for a pretty near perfect Richard.
As in Shakespeare’s day, the female roles are played by male actors – this is done totally straight with no hint of campness. It takes a while to get used to, but in the scene where Richard seduces Lady Ann (played with great skill by Jon Trenchard) over the corpse of Henry VI, there’s an unexpected electricity in the air. Dominic Tighe is also quite brilliant as Elizabeth, while Tony Bell excels as Queen Margaret. It’s a difficult skill for an all-male company to pull off female roles, but it’s done with aplomb here.
There’s also a great deal of humour in Propeller’s production, despite the macabre subject matter. The introduction of Clarence’s two executioners is the excuse for much black humour, with a soundtrack from the choir of Down Amongst The Dead Men ringing out over the split blood. Richard himself is also the cause of much sardonic laughter, whether it be cursing his missing hand or producing a comical bunch of flowers as a seduction technique.
Yet it’s the menacing, sinister edge that is most prevalent here – the two boy princes are brilliantly represented as puppets with the faces of porcelain dolls. The aftermath of their murder by the fantastically creepy James Tyrrell is one of the most affecting moments in the play. The murders in the play, as traditional, are mostly conducted out of the audience’s sight, but we still hear the screams, see the blood splattering on the mobile screens, and in one memorable scene, even see some guts being pulled from one poor soul’s stomach.
Director Edward Hall, son of the legendary Peter and brother to actress Rebecca, keeps up a marvellously fast pace throughout with several scenes that stick in the mind long after the curtain fall – the famous scene where Richard is confronted by the ghosts of his victims is brilliantly staged while the climatic Battle of Bosworth Field is cleverly done despite the lack of horses and weaponry.
It’s the perfect antidote for those who claim that Shakespeare is boring and outdated – several children and teenagers in the audience looked thoroughly enthralled with all the bloodletting on display. Touring the country as part of a double bill with the same company’s Comedy Of Errors, this is simply a production not to be missed.