Snarling, gurning, clad in black leather and dragging his deformed leg around by a chain… this Richard III could only telegraph ‘villain' stronger if he came accompanied by a boo-hiss chorus. Yet Greg Hicks' supple, detailed performance never tips into caricature. He's by far the best thing in an otherwise rather pedestrian production by Mehmet Ergen.
This Richard is no charming rogue; his silver tongue isn't even that convincing. It doesn't need to be. The people around him – the women especially, who it can be troubling to see ‘seduced' in Richard III– act out of expedience or fear, rather than believing his lies. Nods, here, to a post-truth world where a leader can just say and do whatever they want, even when it's blatantly false.
Hicks plays Richard as a bit of geez, amusingly sardonic, but with a very nasty edge. He's a sleaze too, his advances on women repellently lizardy. Crooked and crabbed, clearly his hunger for power stems in part from a desire to take by force what he believes he can't have by fortune.
God, Hicks is good at Shakespeare (he's done most of the biggies by now, but can someone cast him as Iago soon please?). There's a musical craft to the way he beats out the rhythm of a line, or stretches syllables, finds sinister sibilance – but he's always making meaning with it, never just a luvvie doing lovely verse. It's cracks like a whip. Physically, too, the performance is a constantly changing thing. All those facial twitches – the lip-licking, the eyebrow-raising – could be too much, but it works.
The rest of the production is rather plodding, however. Rarely have I felt so aware of how much of this play is just men talking about other men that have been killed; actually, the women have some pretty tedious scenes about family grudges too. There's no spectacle and little ritual in Ergen's production; even Queen Margaret's curses are workaday.
Partly this is due to the Arcola's small space. With bare scaffolding and bare bulbs of the kind that now more evoke hipster coffee shops then, er, whatever they're meant to evoke here, Anthony Lamble's set is hardly traditionally ‘Shakespearean'. That's fine – but it's also not really anything else. The design feels muddled: mostly modern, but with occasional ye olde outfits (and a deeply unconvincing coffin). The sound design, pre-recorded court scenes or battle alarums, is a distinctly naff attempt to scale things up.
Other performances shine through too – Annie Firbank is formidable and stringent as Richard's mother, while Matthew Sim proves an unusually memorable Catesby. Refined, with a cool, self-contained arrogance, he snorts coke and kills at will, weirdly stylish in a long coat, slicked down pure-white hair and fashionable see-through specs. It becomes suddenly a compelling role, but it feels like Catesby was the only one, bar Richard, who got much character development work in an uneven production.