Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: John Haidar
Reviewer: Dave Cunningham
Headlong do not have to try too hard to demonstrate the relevance of Shakespeare’s Richard IIIto contemporary audiences. After all, the play is set in a divided society governed by a populist ‘strong man’ ruler whose narcissism conceals a deep insecurity and rage against the world. Not too difficult, therefore, to see parallels with the present day.
Following the divisive Wars of the Roses Richard of Gloucester (Tom Mothersdale) aspires to the throne of England and is willing to get rid of anyone who might impede his ambitions including his brothers Edward (Michael Matus) and Clarence (Tom Kanji). Richard is a warrior, poorly suited to diplomacy and enlists the help of wily Buckingham (Stefan Adegbola) to smooth his progress. However, to make his reign permanent Richard needs a pair of young princes to be eliminated forcing even Buckingham to re-consider his allegiance.
Directors have occasionally concluded productions of Henry VI Part III with the famous opening line from Richard III. Tonight director John Haidar does the reverse opening Richard III with a flashback to the murder of Henry VI. It gives audiences the chance to hear one of Shakespeare’s best speeches and establishes Richard’s motivation early in the play.
This is a great help, as the production tends to favour brevity over clarity tweaking the text, merging characters and re-assigning speeches to allow an exciting pace. The mirrored glass windows that circle Chiara Stephenson’s gothic cathedral-like set rotate to allow very swift entrances and exits. However, at times, the pace of the characters rushing onto the stage becomes confusing especially as half the cast are playing double roles. At one point Tom Mothersdale makes a joke of the process; checking to see if Leila Mimmack is wearing a wedding ring to determine if she is playing Lady Anne or Norfolk.
The theme of reflection is established early in the play to the extent it is possible events are playing out in Richard’s tormented mind after he becomes consumed by guilt. Rather than haunt Richard in the closing scenes as is usual ghosts of his victims appear behind the mirrored glass as a constant reminder of his crimes.
The stage is drenched blood red when murders occur and Richard sinking his teeth into a victim demonstrates his increasingly precarious grip on sanity in this dark and vivid production. However, although individual scenes may be powerful, the disjointed production does not allow them to form a completely satisfying whole. The lack of atmosphere means that, apart from Tom Mothersdale’s increasingly agitated performance, there is no sense of Richard losing control and his kingdom descending into chaos.
Likewise, while the performances may work in individual scenes they do not always fit in the context of the plot. Stefan Adegbola’s Buckingham is a flamboyant orator in the style of Graham Norton; it is a crowd-pleasing performance although not completely appropriate for a character who is supposed to be the anonymous power behind the throne.
Tom Mothersdale is a surprisingly vulnerable Richard III; frail with spindly twisted legs and nibbling his fingers he is in a state of constant anxiety. It is a completely convincing portrayal of someone taking out his anger at the injustice of his condition on anyone unfortunate enough to get in his way. Like Donald Trump Richard is vulgar – sprawling feet up during his coronation- and cannot conceal his contempt for the office he has schemed to occupy.
This is an exciting and vivid version of a classic play with a spellbinding central performance let down by a disjointed production.
Runs 30 April 2019 | Image: Marc Brenner