This is the first all-female Shakespeare from the ever-inventive Shakespeare's Globe company. To complement its all-male productions, there are two with the ladies this year - which might mollify those actresses who feel they don't get a crack at Shakespearean roles.
At first sight, Richard III might be a strange choice for the gender switch, given the martial and bloody nature of much of the play. But then recall that the most famous portrayal of Richard ever is the richly camp Olivier performance, and you can imagine how the part could be adapted to feminine qualities.
What's more, the history also has a rich array of small but powerful female parts, from the fearsome Queen Margaret (here ferociously played by Linda Bassett) to the unhappy Anne. There's a stunning scene between three women grieving at their losses. Richard's mother, the old queen Margaret and Elizabeth, King Edward's widow, find common ground as they intone the names of the many dead, giving a human dimension to the carnage.
Kathryn Hunter plays a truly disabled Richard. This is the full works - not a slight humpback but someone who's genuinely "scarce half made up" - though it's a reading that does make you wonder how Richard acquired his fearsome reputation on the battlefield. Right from the opening lines, we can hear that this is a leader who's going to use his (or should that be 'her'?) voice to tremendous effect. Hunter's softly-spoken Richard is a wooer, a cajoler, a charmer - a raised eyebrow here, a half-smile there. In a play replete with soliloquies, Hunter enraptures the audience, even if her performance masks some of Richard's more fearsome qualities as a consequence.
Perhaps the production is hampered by director Barry Kyle's decision to play it in Elizabethan costume. A more modern version could have emphasised the cold intelligence and malevolent charm of Richard, without having to emphasise his physical strength. While it's true that all of this year's Globe "original practices" productions have an Elizabethan setting - and there have been great attempts made at authenticity - an all-female cast does not strike a note of verisimilitude.
There are some striking scenes, however: the elaborately choreographed battle, with the ghosts lending a helping hand, and the proclamation of Richard as king stand out.
There are also some strong performances: Yolanda Vazquez's is a mournful Queen Elizabeth; Amanda Harris as Buckingham provides an eager sidekick to Richard; Rachel Sanders shines as the doomed Clarence and a creepy, glad-handing Lord Mayor, working the crowd for all its worth; and there are two excellent princes from Laura Rogers and Liza Hayden. There's some richly evocative music too from Claire van Kampen.
Despite such strengths, I wasn't entirely convinced by this production. An all-women cast felt rather too gimmicky to me. Maybe the experiment will work better in a play that makes more of gender role-playing.
- Maxwell Cooter