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Review: Richard III (Bristol Old Vic)

Headlong's production of Shakespeare's tragedy opens at the Old Vic in Bristol

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Tom Mothersdale as Richard III
© Marc Brenner

"I have neither pity, love nor fear", announces Richard at the beginning of Shakespeare's gruelling tragedy. It's a line that sets up Tom Mothersdale's portrayal of the eponymous villain in Headlong's touring production very nicely. He is pure psychopath, revelling in the destruction, pain and chaos he causes en route to becoming King of England. Mothersdale's Richard is almost reckless in his machinations, making little or no attempt to hide his dastardly plots and dark intentions.

It's hard to watch a man like that. Hard to watch mainly because he couldn't care less what anyone thinks of anything he does. It's a Richard entirely devoid of emotional attachment, as Mothersdale's calipered leg swings out to the side, his bulging shoulder looming over his neck, he's like a one-track minded, bulky killing machine. And while the difficulty to understand him or connect with him isn't a problem in itself, in the context of John Haidar's production, it is. Haidar directs the play at a non-stop, scene-in, scene-out pace, which sees key moments in Richard's plan galloped over. It's a long play, yes, a lot needs to be squeezed into it, but pressing the fast forward button to make sure we get it all isn't the answer.

That starts early, with the "winter of our discontent" soliloquy zoomed through and quickly forgotten before we're onto the next scene. The key moments within the play – the wooing of Lady Anne at the foot of her husband's fresh corpse, for example – are barely finished before the next expositional scene comes in. Richard's many short conversations with the people he manages to coerce into killing for him are thrown away. People come on, people go off and the plot gets told, but more is needed.

Giving more and all he has is Mothersdale, at the centre of the production and missed when he isn't onstage (which is rare). He is a very, very nasty Richard, all dark piercing eyes showing a true hatred bunched up inside. He smacks of Heath Ledger's Joker in The Dark Knight more than once, a kind of smiling, deeply cruel insanity infusing his every moment. It's a pity then that Haidar doesn't let him fly more, the play is all about an exceptionally nasty baddie, after all.

Chiara Stephenson's mirror set designs offer up some nice moments of horror – where those that haunt Richard appear suddenly behind the looking glasses – and the blood and gore is visceral throughout. Elliot Griggs' bathing of the stage in red flashes when a dagger strikes flesh are particularly effective, as are George Dennis' bursts of white noise at moments of high trauma.

But ultimately the show suffers from a labouring over the exposition of this story, where it should have revelled in the character. It's a good performance in a production which doesn't do it justice.