Richard III – Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon

Reviewer: James Garrington

Writer: William Shakespeare

Director: Gregory Doran

Richard III marks the end of Shakespeare’s first great history cycle, and this production marks a first for the Royal Shakespeare Company as we finally get to see Richard – famed for his disability – played in Stratford by a disabled actor. Casting Arthur Hughes in the role adds an extra layer of authenticity to the play, the insults sting a little harder, his bitter comments about himself strike home a little more.

This Richard is a long way from the limping, shuffling figure that we often see. Hughes takes a naturalistic approach to his role, and in so doing he creates a character that is entirely believable. How do tyrants rise to power, and why do people let them? This production shows you exactly how, as we see Richard using his wit and charm to win people over to his side, making sure his detractors are discredited and anyone standing in his way disposed of. On the surface, we see a character who is very likeable, a man you could drink with and have a good time, one who will make you laugh with his amusing one-liners and comic retorts. In fact, the whole of the very lengthy first act is often laugh-out-loud funny. Even his darker deeds are carried out with a smile and a joke and although the time passes quickly, a bit of trimming or adjustment of where the interval sits wouldn’t go amiss.

Move forward to the much shorter second half and the veneer slips away once Richard has achieved his aim and starts to realise that it’s easier to get to the top than it is to stay there. Earlier we have seen Hughes working happily with the humour in the role – now we see a change, a temper and the onset of panic as he realises that his supporters are deserting him, the arch-manipulator is being outwitted and his enemies are closing in. It’s a stellar portrayal from Hughes and one that saw a large proportion of the audience on their feet at the end on press night.

There is the usual strong support from the rest of the cast, not least from the women Richard shares the stage with. Rosie Sheehy gives a strong performance as Anne, whose husband Richard murdered but who can’t stop herself being drawn in when Richard decides he’s going to marry her. Kirsty Bushell is prominent in the role of Elizabeth, Edward IV’s widow, as she tries to protect her family from Richard’s excesses. Hopeful but mistrusting, charming and finally pleading she goes through a whirlwind of emotions as the play progresses. Claire Benedict is regal in the role of the Duchess of York, Richard’s mother, while Minnie Gale provides a regular presence in the shadows as Margaret, Henry VI’s widow, lurking as though waiting for the moment of her revenge – when the three come together they create something remarkable.

A simple set consists largely of a massive cenotaph looming over the stage – sometimes in shadow and sometimes lit blood red, it is a constant reminder of the trail of death and destruction Richard leaves in his wake. With no scenic distractions, the attention is drawn entirely to the performances and Gregory Doran’s production benefits as a result.

This memorable production may go down as not only a milestone for disabled actors but as one of the great portrayals of the character. Highly recommended.

Runs until 8 October 2022

The Reviews Hub Score

Memorable and highly recommended

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The Reviews Hub - Central

The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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