The murder of the little Princes in the Tower is one of the best known chapters of English history – and the identity of their killer a much-pondered mystery. In Shakespeare s time, however, there was no whodunnit aspect to the murder – the Tudor propaganda machine had confirmed it as the blackest deed in the grim litany of crimes committed by the original wicked uncle, Richard III. Hence Shakespeare s depiction of this last of the Plantagenet kings as the most outrageous villain in his entire canon, a “lump of foul deformity” without a single redeeming virtue.
Historically accurate or not, as a dramatic role, it s considered to be one of the playwright s greatest gifts to actors, and the opening speech, “now is the winter of our discontent”, possibly the most popular audition piece of all time. Curiously, as an actor renowned for his roguish charm, Robert Lindsay doesn t go for the glamorous villain option, but instead makes Richard as repulsive as he possibly can. With greasy hair, leering grin and sideways twitch of the head, he s uncannily reminiscent of the seedy landlord Rigsby, as portrayed by the late Leonard Rossiter in the 1970s sitcom Rising Damp.
Following the details of the action requires more than a passing knowledge of the Wars of the Roses. Events are telescoped for the sake of dramatic tension, and the stage hosts a rapid succession of plots and murders, and a bewildering number of kings and queens. But even without a familiarity of the historical niceties, it s possible to revel in the play s bristling intelligence and energy, especially that of Richard, the evil puppet-master.
Of the other parts, David Yelland is a very plausible Buckingham, all good looks, urbanity and eloquence on the surface and cold ambition within. The women in the play have the quality of a Greek tragic chorus as they wail and curse amid the bloodshed. Sian Thomas, as the mother of the murdered princes, declaims her lines rather too woodenly, but Anna Carteret puts in a splendid grande dame performance as the dowager Queen Margaret, raining curses upon the ruling faction that s murdered her husband and son.
There s no messing about with modern dress or set, a refreshing novelty these days. Rather, this is an evening of full-on gothic gloom with lots of smoke, swirling velvet robes and wimples. Rob Howell s set gets top marks – huge grey cathedral arches loom menacingly over the actors, and heavy chains hang suspended from on high as Richard gains ascendancy over the kingdom, only to fall just before he meets his doom.