Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Mark Leipacher
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
‘Brother to brother / Blood to blood, self against self’. Richard III is one of the Bard’s bloodiest history plays with a controversial villain at its heart.The debateabout the true Richard was reignited recently when his remains were located in Leicestershire; some seeing Shakespeare’s play as nothing but unfounded slander and others a pantomime villain who murdered his entire family to get to the throne.
Theatre company The Faction shrewdly waited until the fuss had died down to introduce their version which opens their latest residency at the New Diorama. Known for their innovative and accessible productions a season by The Faction should be highly anticipated, and their new version of Richard III is thrilling.
The play opens full throttle with a very physical battle scene in which pairs of fighters attack each other with gusto. In the midst of all this is Richard, Duke of Gloucester who slays his aggressor ensuring his brother Edward takes the throne. A consummate politician, Richard woos and marries, before plotting to remove his various relatives from the line of succession including both his brothers and his nephews. As the corpses of former friends, advisors and family members pile up Richard charms his way into thecrownbut finds the throne the most dangerous place for a medieval King to be.
The portrayal of the central role canbe makeor break, but Christopher York’s performancepierces the production like a sword, displaying the dexterity of Richard’s political machinations and his growing arrogance, but tempers this with unexpected moments of softness and fear. His declaration of love for Lady Anne is compellingly sweet but this contrasts starkly with the cold trap he lays for the former Queen Elizabeth, as he tries to win a second wife by forcing her hand with impossible choices.
Best of all is York’s presentation of Richard’s deformity and here the audience is shown both how Richard sees himself and how others see him.Initially,his arm is bent at the elbow, fingerskinked, raising a shoulder to represent the hunchback of Shakespeare’s text, toes crossed and feet strapped, but as his plans come to fruition these traits fall away and York becomes entirely upright, as though Richardwasseeing himself as an invulnerable hero. At pivotalinstants, the crookedness returns as he momentarily doubts himself or is seared by his conscience, but this clever device allows the audience to see two parts of the same man fighting it out – the villain-statesman against the weakling craving recognition – it’s a fascinating performance, which brings a fresh perspective.
There is a huge cast so it is difficult for everyone to make their mark, but standouts include Gary Richards and Carmen Munroe who bring a timeless gravitas as Richard’s ally Hastings and his mother The Duchess, while Kate Sawyer spends 90% of the production wailing but finally gets her momentin a fantastic scene as former Queens Elizabeth and Margaret (a superb Sakuntala Ramanee)descrythe lotof women and learn to curse their enemies.
Occasionally among the rest of the cast, some of the text is rushed or they run out of breath before they can finish the sentence but it barely detracts from a strong ensemble performance. As always with TheFaction, there are plenty of inventive elements to enjoy and without one single prop or piece of staging, the company relies entirely on their own bodies and some impressive sound effects to convey the action.
At onepoint, eight cast membersformtwo thrones for Richard and his wife to sit on, which is cleverlyachieved,while Lex Kosanke’s sound is gloriously gruesome in providing the sounds of hangings, beheadings and arrow flight. It’s a long evening but never feels it, and despite its confusing array ofcharacters, there’s hardly a dull moment. Arguably, The Factionare the best performers of Shakespeare on the Fringe and their production of Richard III does not disappoint – a great start to 2016 and not to be missed.
Runsuntil6 February | Image: The Faction