This spring Bristol’s Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory company is presenting a contrasting pair of Shakespeare’s earliest dramas: Richard III and Two Gentlemen of Verona. First off is Richard III presented in traditional dress in a lucid and powerful production directed by Andrew Hilton with John Mackay in the title role.
Mackay’s Richard is first-rate. He captures his love of dissembling, his will to power, his desire to control others. He is convincing as seducer, plotter and fighter. He looks unnerving with his peroxide blond crew-cut and his withered arm, uneven gait and his cold dead eyes. Too many Richards play to the gallery and go for easy laughs. There are witty line readings (and, I thought, the occasional odd emphasis) but this production mercifully doesn’t overdo the comedy; this Richard is a black magician sending his family to their deaths. The production makes clear that the violence of the play is a continuation of past killings and betrayals, that something is rotten in the state of England.
One advantage of not casting a big name is that other characters come more strongly into focus and can hold their own on the stage with Richard. Paul Currier gives a fine performance as the smooth-tongued Buckingham, whom Richard calls “my other self”, as they plot his rise together. This play has great parts for women, which is one reason why it is a shame that two recent major productions have been all-male (one of them by a company seemingly committed to the notion that there simply aren’t enough good roles for men in classical theatre), and Dorothea Myer-Bennett (as Queen Anne), Lisa Kay (as Queen Elizabeth) and Nicky Goldie as the (Duchess of York) all give strong performances (Queen Margaret has been cut). And Tobacco Factory regulars such as Christopher Bianchi, Peter Clifford and Alan Coveney give vivid support.
The intimacy of the venue and the in-the-round staging add to the intensity of the evening. The stage design is simple, the costumes beautiful (Harriet de Winton is the designer). As always with this company the emphasis is on the actors and the language with the result that character is illuminated and the thrilling story is told with clarity and pace.