Review: Richard III (Sam Wanamaker Playhouse)

This distinctive production begins its run at the Wanamaker

Sophie Russell as Richard III
Sophie Russell as Richard III
© Marc Brenner

Iconic villains abound in Shakespeare and this new production at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is a modern reimagining of one of the slickest and most sinister.

Directors Sean Holmes and Ilinca Radulian successfully render Richard III's nightmarish world but do so in a very distinctive style. In this production swords are replaced by plastic bags, Queen Elizabeth has an American accent and a portable floodlight is a trigger for imminent murder. The use of plastic is the most singular element of Grace Smart's set design – deceased family members are symbolised by bloodied cellophane bags whilst huge tarpaulin sheets adorn the stage during scenes of heavy violence. You could be forgiven for thinking Guy Ritchie is a member of the creative team but ultimately this is really creative and exciting arrangement.

Sophie Russell offers an imaginative interpretation of Richard but a feeling pervades that she could perhaps glean a little more from such a complex villain. She exudes his narcissistic tendencies wonderfully, whilst also revelling in the constant bloodshed and chaos. Each time a character is killed at Richard's bidding, Russell swans onto the stage singing and dancing around the cast. During River and Grey's deaths, she even impersonates Elvis complete with a quiff and white leather jacket. These are humorous moments and feel tonally akin to a Scorsese film – extreme violence enacted to a soundtrack and choreography that belie such evident rage.

One frustration is that very little is made of Richard's physical deformity. This aspect is teased during the first scene between Richard and Anne, as Russell slithers on all fours to the feet of the unsuspecting queen; her movement is quite simply mesmeric. The interaction suggests this is how Richard's disability will be interpreted, in a similar manner to Anthony Sher's iconic 1984 RSC performance as a gigantic, crutched spider. It feels like an enormous opportunity lost that this never transpires.

Russell is also not particularly helped by the fact that Richard is made to look a rather ponderous villain by Jonathan Broadbent's performance as Buckingham. As the latter descends into evil, Broadbent really hits a groove and manipulates other characters with quick-witted ease. He is a joy to watch in these moments but his skill makes you question who is supposed to be the play's real mastermind – occasionally it can feel as though Richard has been placed in the shade.

For all Steffan Donnelly's superb work as Margaret, and his are some of the most chilling scenes of the entire production, he is simply not a convincing Richmond. The majority of the play's musical direction (Thom Ashworth) is strong and Ellie Wilson's use of the saw lends a great deal of tension to the play's darker moments. Why on earth then is the final battle scene accompanied by the type of music you might find on a Mumford and Sons b-side? To describe the moment as jarring would be an understatement.

This production feels close to being excellent but unfortunately is a little confused. Praise is due for a modern and dynamic interpretation but the execution does not match up to the brilliance of Shakespeare's antagonist.