It was two years ago - when Kenneth Branagh was being interviewed by film
critic Barry Norman about Love's Labour's Lost - that I heard the
actor declare the only role he still yearned to play was Richard III.
But it took Sheffield Crucible and now Donmar Warehouse director Michael
Grandage to put the Shakespeare aficionado back on the stage after a
10-year gap. And what a return it is. The 1,000-capacity Crucible sold out the entire run months ago and opening night had that special buzz of anticipation about it
that's, sadly, a rare commodity.
From the moment Branagh utters the familiar "Now is the winter of our
discontent made glorious summer" opening, clad only in a pair of briefs,
lying on his back strapped to a contraption which looks like a cross between
a rack and a traction unit, we are reminded exactly why he was hailed the
new Olivier umpteen years ago.
For this may be Shakespeare's play, it may be Grandage's production, there
may be a stellar supporting company, but it's Branagh's show. You just can't
take your eyes off him.
This Richard truly "seem(s) a saint when most I play the devil". He revels
in manipulation, play-acting charm and concern to others then turning to the
audience for a delicious admission of his true nasty, ambitious and selfish
His wooing of Lady Anne (Claire Price) is almost playful yet devilishly
attractive, turning her from disgust and revulsion to sexual fascination,
but the moment he's crowned, the charming façade begins to slip. Richard,
like Branagh, is the consummate actor.
Danny Webb turns in a sterling performance as Buckingham, from cocky Lord
and sly supporter of Richard to broken, cringing and cowering wreck as he
faces his own execution. There's nice work too from Phyllis Logan as Queen Elizabeth; Barbara Jefford as Margaret and Jimmy Yuill as Hastings.
Christopher Oram's set is minimal, featuring huge stone-grey pillars as a
backdrop and leaving the vast Crucible space clear for the huge
performances, beautifully lit by Tim Mitchell.
But although the company gained rapturous applause, the cheers were reserved
for Branagh's solo bow. With a memorable and mesmerising performance like
this, let's hope it's not 10 years before the next.