The first time I saw Richard III was the now iconic National Theatre production with Ian McKellan. I remember the experience vividly – and recall very clearly that I left the theatre unable to speak because of the theatrical brilliance that I had encountered.
I have to admit that this, the third production of the play that I have seen in Stratford, may not live in my memory quite so long but it still ranks as a high quality version of, perhaps, my favourite of all the plays of Shakespeare.
Roxanna Silbert’s production is direct, clear and lucid. A judicious cutting of the script allows the action to move at a reasonable pace. (The current running time is three hours 15 minutes – for those worried about making the last train.) However, there is a slight unevenness in tone in certain scenes which tends to slightly disturb the atmosphere – but that may just come down to how different audiences react to a particular scene.
However, it is in the performances that the real quality of the production is to be found.
Jonjo O'Neill plays the smiling villain with considerable charm and a certain sex appeal. I would have liked a more erotic charge with his encounters with Lady Anne and Queen Elizabeth – though perhaps the indication of a greater-than-usual intimacy with Buckingham and Catesby might go some way to explain that. Allowing him to use his native accent brings a fresh sound to his familiar lines and serves to increase the bond between him and his audience. It is a performance that showcases his potential as a leading player for the Royal Shakespeare Company for many years to come.
O’Neill is able supported by the fast-talking, slick Buckingham of Brian Ferguson and the quietly effective Catesby of Alex Waldman. There are some very strong ensemble players – with Joshua Jenkins making a particularly memorable contribution as one of Clarence’s murderers.
With a role as well-written as Queen Margaret, it is hard not to make an impression on the audience. However, Paola Dionisotti excels as the wronged and vengeful widow – every word is made to count, every gesture and move calculated to deliver maximum impact. She does, somewhat, overshadow the other ladies in the company – but part of that is due to the nature of the writing. Siobhan Redmond almost seems to be holding back in her performance of the role of Elizabeth – only occasionally showing the sparks that made her recent performance in Dunsinane so effective.
From a technical perspective, the production lives up to the high standards that audiences have come to expect from the RSC. Rick Fisher’s lighting is outstanding – making great use of projected shadows throughout. There is a thrilling battle sequence from Terry King and the music is powerful and evocative. The designs combine modern dress with traditional armour for an eclectic but not distracting look.
Is this a production that will redefine the play for the next generation (just as those involving Olivier, Sher and McKellan did in their time)? I don’t think so.
Is this a production that will entertain and interest audiences over the coming months? Absolutely. It is a very strong piece of work and one that shows the RSC in good form as it prepares to enter the next phase of their history.
As for redefining the play… we do have a certain Mr Rylance about to don the hump. What that will deliver, we will just have to wait and see.