After seven productions of medieval mayhem it’s a bit of a shock to be confronted by this modern dress Richard. What’s particularly strange is that in the previous histories director Michael Boyd has taken great pains to emphasise the continuity within history; how events from one generation pass down to another, yet here we have something starkly different.
Why Boyd has done this? Is it to demonstrate how the bloody power struggles of five hundred and so years haunt us still? Is it to show that the family jealousies and rivalries that make up much of the action of the play are of all time? Or is it that in the age of spin, this Richard is the ultimate showman – presenting an honest and devout face to much of the world while spinning his web?
Whatever reason, I’m not sure that it works, by distancing it from the rest of the histories, we lose that sense of perspective that makes the other seven productions work so well. Nor am I wholly convinced by Jonathan Slinger’s performance. He was masterly in the Henry VI, where his blood-lust was prompted by the bloody times, but here, his villainy takes on a new dimension – he’s an almost comic book villain (rather coincidentally, Slinger has an extremely wide smile that persisted in reminding me of Jack Nicholson’s Joker) rather than the cold-hearted psychopath of the earlier plays.
Nor is Boyd’s tinkering always effective: I see no reason for having Clarence stabbed rather than drowned in a butt of malmsey – it makes nonsense of the text for one thing and destroys the effect of the magnificent “Lord, methought what pains it was to drown” speech.
That’s not to say that it’s a poor production; I liked the way that Richard Cordery’s scheming Buckingham is as much conspirator as Richard and Margaret’s entrance carrying the bones of her dead husband (an echo of the same actor carrying the sack of bones as Joan of Arc in Henry VI) is unforgettable; Katy Stephens in a small part gives another memorable performance. I also liked [Julius D’Silva]’s sinister and unctuous Catesby, the unquestioning apparatchik ready to do his master’s bidding. By most standards, this would be a pretty memorable production but it doesn’t compare well with what’s gone before.
If there’s one message from the evening, it’s how an unscrupulous operator can lie and dissemble his way to power and how political spin can be used to hide uncomfortable facts.
But the loudest cheer of the evening was reserved for the appearance of a dinner-jacketed toff; “The Mayor of London” announces Buckingham quickly to much laughter – now, who could they have been thinking of?
- Maxwell Cooter
NOTE: The following FOUR-STAR review dates from January 2007, when this production first opened at the Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-Upon Avon.
The RSC has given us two of the most misconceived Richard IIIs in recent memory beginning with Robert Lindsay's pantomime turn in 1999 and continuing with Henry Goodman's equally burlesque performance in 2003. So it's a relief to report that Jonathan's Slinger's Dicky is diabolical for all the right reasons. Here is a Gloucester who won't give you the hump.
This production, directed by Michael Boyd, concludes the impressive tetralogy which began last summer with the three parts of Henry VI. All the virtues that made these productions so thrilling and memorable are present and correct here: urgent, physical performances by a clearly committed ensemble that make full use of all of the Courtyard Theatre.
But, inevitably with a play lasting three-and-a-half hours in which the principal character is onstage virtually throughout, much of the success of a production will stand or fall with the performance of the lead. And Slinger is unlikely to disappoint many, with a full-blooded interpretation that is undeniably powerful and compelling, if over-inclined to lapse into roaring.
Shaven-headed and sporting a large vivid birthmark, Slinger plays to the hilt Richard's physical repulsiveness, every inch the venomous spider as he scuttles, at high speed, across the stage. His crookback is not so much a diabolic Machiavellian as a full-blown psychopath whose mood can turn, in an instant, from quiet insouciance to an incoherent, mouth-foaming rage.
And yet, for me, Slinger is far more effective in the quieter passages. Indeed I would go so far as to say his is not even the best performance here. Honours go to Katy Stephens as Queen Margaret, widow of Henry VI, who is simply incandescent; her rage and grief verging on possession.
Also terrific are Maureen Beattie as the Duchess of York, Ann Ogbomo as Elizabeth and the ever-reliable Richard Cordery as an avuncular Buckingham. Tom Piper's design mixes medieval and modern, highlighting the contemporary nature of the concerns, but not in a way which jars.
There are some bravura moments of staging including the scene before the final battle in which the ghosts of Richard's victims return to taunt him. And the sky-high confidence of director and cast is clear too in the scene in which Clarence is murdered which is here, brilliantly played for laughs.
Well worth catching.
- Pete Wood