The trouble with Richard III is that every actor since the 1950s has to compete with the legacy of Laurence Olivier, whose cinematic version still maintains a hold today. Here, the darkly camp Aidan McArdle is definitely a follower of the Olivier school. In fact, he is slightly too camp. As a result, his ruthlessness is kept well hidden and, at times, he seems more like Blackadder than the crookback. But McArdle has a nice flair for humour and, in particular, makes an effective comic double act with Richard Cordery's scheming Buckingham, plotting to be offered the throne.
This production highlights one of the This England disadvantages, of having the same actor playing the same part throughout all the plays. Fiona Bell's Queen Margaret is an old women, bent of revenge but knowing that she's now weak. Her dragging of her son's bones across the stage should provide a moving symbol of loss and helplessness. Unfortunately, Bell is approximately 40 years too young for the part and tackles the role with the same gusto that she did the youthful queen.
On the flip side, the big advantage of the RSC's bold cycle is also abundantly clear with this production - when the play is viewed in context of what has gone before, so much makes perfect sense. Revenge is visited on both erring houses: Henry deposes Richard and then his ancestor Henry is murdered by a Richard. But finally that Richard meets his doom at the hands of another Henry. So does history repeat itself.
Such continuity is emphasised by Michael Boyd's directorial decisions. He constantly refers to the previous plays. For example, Richard's coronation is attended by the ghosts of Henry VI, York, Edward IV, and others who have died in the conflict (members of the audience who haven't attended the whole canon will be very bemused at what's going on - another reason to see the full series).
The play ends with Sam Troughton's triumphant Richmond (soon to be Henry VII) proclaiming an end to the bloodshed: "England hath been mad, and scarred herself/The brother blindly shed the brother's blood." Now you can recall Carlisle's prophesy from Richard II to realise how brilliantly Shakespeare handles these histories. And as Richmond speaks of "plenty and prosperous days", you also realise what a supreme Tudor propagandist he was.
Bad news for Richard III's memory perhaps, but what joy for the rest of us, and full marks to the RSC for shedding new light on these well-known (and not so well-known) plays.