Review: Richard III (Temple Church, London)
Antic Disposition's adaptation of Shakespeare's play caused controversy earlier this year
Antic Disposition caused a stir earlier this year by announcing their performances of Shakespeare's Richard III at Leicester Cathedral, metres from where the recently discovered remains of the King himself were placed in 2015. A handful of societies were incensed - seeing the run as an insult to the memory of the dead monarch. The company responded by stating that their performance would, rather than present a straight-laced version of the play, instead 'engage in the dynamics between the man and the myths of King Richard III'. This wasn't your typical 'villain'.
Now that the company have brought the show to London, it's clear to see where this succeeded - Toby Manley's enthralling depiction of the calculating figure adds layers of complexity to the Duke. His opening monologue starts with a jovial and almost warm figure pacing along the traverse stage, chatting with his audience. We can't tell if it's a rouse - is he actually a 'villain', or is it the villainy that's an act? The multifaceted character re-emerges later on the eve of Bosworth Hill, with Manley choking up as he confesses his 'conscience hath a thousand several tongues', every tongue saying something different.
The production has gone for a modern overhaul. In terms of influences, the obvious ones are Kevin Spacey's martial gear and limp. Beyond this, the transformation into a more totalitarian regime (with guards armed with shades and earplugs, being bested by a Richmond dressed in British military garb) sit closer to the 1995 film starring Ian McKellen and Robert Downey Jr. X-Boxes and Blackberries are used to good effect.
It's a deft adaptation from directors Ben Horslen and John Risebero, filled with neat touches - Richard demands Catesby 'rumor it abroad that Anne my wife is very grievous sick' while in fact standing next to his very healthy wife, played with a stoic defiance by Bryony Tebbutt. She is promptly removed and executed - an inventive display of newly-crowned Richard's impunity.
Where the production falls down is that it never justifies its setting. In Leicester the proximity would have been pertinent, but in London the set, rigs of lights, and blaring speaker system are anachronistic. Risebero's elevated traverse plays scenes on some long catwalk.
In some ways this makes complete sense - a catwalk is the ultimate performative space - everyone is judged on their image. The obsession with appearance does not end there, Richard narcissistically stares at his reflection in the blade of a sword (after earlier moaning about being 'unfashionable'), while William de Coverly's Clarence enters the play by strutting his stuff along the red velvet carpet.
But by building this elevated set, the church itself feels underused, especially when Horslen and Risebero choose a secular reading of Shakespeare's text. Bishops become bumbling lovers of strawberries, with security guards their puppet masters, while the adaptation indulges in secular curses and superstitions. Once dead, the ghosts of Richard's victims return to the stage to haunt their killer. God becomes an after-thought.
There are other strange choices - making the Mayor of London a blonde, blue-rosette wearing bumbler (an obvious point of reference) felt like a distracting and unnecessary decision that did little. It's a shame, as the more pared back Henry V the production performed last year was capable of both enchantment and originality, where live music felt a lot less grating than pre-composed bass-y tunes. This Richard III functions well in providing a complex depiction of its central figure, but beyond this, the show feels unfortunately less successful.
Richard III runs at London's Temple Church until 7 September.