Richard III – Rosemary Branch Theatre, London

Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Sean Aydon
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Since the discovery of the body in the car park, Richard III seems to have become Shakespeare’s most performed play even over perennial favourites like Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

tell-us-block_editedThere have been notable star-led versions including Sherlock colleagues Martin Freeman at the Trafalgar Studios and Benedict Cumberbatch for the BBC, while last year Ralph Fiennes made his mark at The Almeida. On the fringe, too, there have been notable successes for Iris Theatre Company in St Paul’s Churchyard while exactly a year ago The Faction delivered an innovative interpretation at The New Diorama.

In what has become a crowded space therefore, theatre companies are facing a very high bar for new versions of Richard, ones that can deliver top-notch performances while bringing a fresh take to a well-known story. Godot’s Watch can claim to have partially delivered on both those things, and while their truncated version at The Rosemary Branch theatre pub may not quite hold together, it’s not short of interesting approaches and a very impressive central performance.

The slightly deformed and overlooked Richard, Duke of Gloucester, is frustrated with his treatment and status, so decides to manoeuvre and murder his way to the throne. Allowing little to stand in his way, Richard easily dispatches both his brothers, including the reigning monarch, and seeks to destroy their heirs. But on Richard’s path to power he incurs a number of enemies and as his dark deeds challenge his conscience and the legitimacy of his crown, how long will he hold on to the throne?

Godot’s Watch have certainly created a mean and moody world for the dastardly Richard to inhabit. Dressed almost entirely in black with the only colour provided by a garish gold throne and suspended coloured rods, what begins as a homage to film noir, with Richard delivering soliloquies in shadowy spotlight, become a gangster’s paradise underscored by rap music and surreal and sordid bunny girls. Director Sean Aydon has created a boldly appropriate setting for Shakespeare’s controversial villain.

And there are some inspired moments of interpretation as Richard himself is given a minor limp and a large red birthmark which covers most of one side of his face, like a permanent blood stain marking him out from the start. The modern setting also utilises smartphones to deliver important narrative messages and Richard uses Siri to find a suitable assassin for his young nephews. All of these touches are seamlessly integrated, yet somehow the production as a whole doesn’t quite match-up to the quality of these moments.

Partly this is a question of performance and while the text has been severely reduced, removing a lot of the secondary characters and almost all the battle-context, including Richard’s main opponent – the future Henry VII – too often the actors rush or garble the dialogue so the little political information that is left is difficult to discern and the plot obscured. For a show that is only two hours with an interval, it does feel longer at times and Aydon hasn’t managed to build tension as the deaths mount and the stakes are raised for Richard.

This also means that the nuance of some of the secondary characters is flattened including Avital Lvova’s Queen Margaret who becomes a one-note hysteric rather than a more complex figure who gives voice to the concerns about prophesy that run through the play. Similarly, Elena Clements’ Buckingham is less vicious henchman than smug cheerleader and more of the dark pact between Buckingham and Richard, and why it goes horribly wrong could be explored.

Katie Norris and Michael Rivers do very well as the Queen Elizabeth and her brother, a drug-fuelled double act, while Norris is at her best in a compelling scene with Sam Coulson’s Richard bartering for her daughter. Rivers also brings freshness to the death of Clarence playing both executioners as one, very disturbed killer. But the cuts made to this production really focus on Richard and Coulson successfully grasps every opportunity to present the complexity and darkness of Shakespeare’s most infamous villain. At times so charming he’s practically channelling Nigel Havers and at others delivering blistering condemnations of those around him, Coulson’s performance is by far the best thing about this production and certainly comparable with those who’ve gone before him.

The company have clearly thought hard about the type of Richard they wanted to present and a lot of their ideas are very successful, but working a little more on the purpose of the secondary characters, delivery and drive would make this a more coherent experience for an audience. Shakespeare’s Richard may be ‘rudely stamp’d’ but Coulson’s charming performance will certainly win you to his cause.

Runs until 29 January 2017 | Image: Caroline Galea

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