DramaNorth East & YorkshireReview

Richard III – Hull Truck Theatre

Writer: William Shakespeare

Director: Barrie Rutter

Designer: Neil Murray

Musical Director: Conrad Nelson

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

The staging of Richard III at Hull Truck resonates in several ways. It is produced in association with Hulls Year of Culture and Northern Broadsides as a Shakespearean contribution to Hull 2017 and a celebration of Broadsides’ 25th anniversary. Founded by one of Hull’s favourite theatrical sons, Barrie Rutter, in 1992, Broadsides’ first production was Richard III, initially staged in Hull, so what could be more appropriate?

The 2017 production is notable for the casting of a disabled actor, Mat Fraser, in the title role – and it works. Fraser lives with the effects of thalidomide in the form of undeveloped arms and immediately the director is freed from the decision of just how to approach Richard’s humpback – if that is what it is. His enemies may call him “a bottled spider” and “a bunch-backed toad”, but all he says is that he is “unfinished…scarce half made up.” What is intriguing is the effect this has on the performance. Saddling Richard with a physical deformity tends to affect interpretation, to add elements of the grotesque, most spectacularly in Anthony Sher’s triumphantly bizarre performance at Stratford in 1984.

Mat Fraser is initially the most convincingly normal Richard of Gloucester. He even resists the temptation to overplay the black humour: he is amusingly sardonic, but no more. This restraint is not an unmixed blessing: though he projects the character compellingly enough, his interpretation is part of a long first half which is surprisingly low key. At times it doesn’t really feel like a Northern Broadsides production. There are too many static scenes, too many rather stiff performances. There is no music.

Of course, there are also dramatically and comically engaging scenes and some fine performances. As Richard and Buckingham (Matt Connor, intelligent, but rather subdued) con the Mayor (Richard Standing, doubling neatly with Clarence) and citizens, their joy at their own cunning bursts out exuberantly. As so often with Richard III, the women make a particularly strong impression. Catherine Kinsella’s passionate Lady Anne is followed by Ruth Alexander-Rubin’s Queen Elizabeth, movingly losing her smug grip on power, Christine Cox’s crushingly honest Duchess of York and Flo Wilson’s Queen Margaret, very much of the “Mad Margaret” school of interpretation, but doing it with brooding power. All are excellent.

The second half bursts into life. If some of the actors remain efficient but no more, Mat Fraser finds all the malignant paranoia of the character, driving the action on with a wilful unpredictability that we in the 21st Century find all too familiar. He has paced himself well and his final scenes have a vocal power that shows the benefit of earlier restraint.

And the last half hour or so could not be anybody but Broadsides, notably the final battle scene, fought out with drums and trolleys and culminating in a fine a cappella Te Deum.

A cast list of 16 (plus a drum corps) is generous in these straitened times, but various texts of the playlist somewhere around 35 characters and the doubling is occasionally confusing. Apart from rather flamboyant costumes for Edward IV (Barrie Rutter) and his Queen, Neil Murray’s 1950s-ish designs make little mark, though his mighty upstage screen, sliding and opening for entries, looks good and leaves plenty of space for the action.

Runs until 27 May 2017 | Image: Nobby Clark

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