Review: Richard lll (Hull Truck Theatre)

Mat Fraser plays the titular king in Northern Broadsides’ 25th anniversary production

Twenty five years ago Barrie Rutter launched Northern Broadsides in a boatshed in Hull Marina with a production of Shakespeare's Richard lll. The company returns as part of Hull's UK City of Culture 2017 celebrations and this time the play is the same but the venue is different.

Rutter directs again as he did in 1992 when he also played the title role. Now he has handed Richard's crown over to Mat Fraser, the first disabled actor to play one of the greatest villains of all time. And very good Fraser is too, pulling the audience into his murderous plans to grab power from his opening 'Now is the winter of our discontent' speech directed at the audience.

This is a man who thinks nothing of wooing the woman he wants to marry, in the morgue over the dead body of her murdered (on his orders) husband. Richard's actions may be morally reprehensible but Fraser has a certain wicked charm that – dare I say it – almost makes you want him to get away with it. He shows that villainy can be attractive.

He must also be the first drum-playing Richard lll. Rutter turns the final military clash into a battle of the drums, making use of the percussionist skills of Fraser, who's been a drummer with rock bands and played alongside Coldplay at the 2012 Paralympics closing ceremony.

Otherwise Rutter's production plays it fairly safe and conventional, although Broadsides' trademark clog-dancing does get a brief look-in. Neil Murray's set, comprising massive sliding screens is simple but effective enabling a smooth transition of scenes.

The accent, as befits a company created to present Shakespeare in a northern voice, is on the words. No fuss, no frills as typified by Rutter's direction which is unshowy but still gets the job done. There's nothing 'look at me, aren't I clever?' about it – and the production is all the better for it.

Catherine Kinsella's stoical Lady Anne and Ruth Alexander-Rubin's defiant Elizabeth do best among the ensemble, in roles that call for them to stand by and suffer as husbands and children are slaughtered in Richard's Machiavellian plans to seize power, by killing or marrying any royal who stands between him and the throne.

Rutter says there is 'a sweet circularity' in Northern Broadsides returning to Hull in the company's 25th birthday year and in Hull's year as UK City of Culture. This Richard lll proves a worthy celebration of both.

Richard III runs at Hull Truck Theatre until 27 May, then at the Viaduct Theatre, Halifax from 30 May to 3 June.

Read our interview with Mat Fraser