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Richard III – Tobacco Factory Theatre, Bristol

Writer: William Shakespeare

Director: Andrew Hilton

Reviewer: Shane Morgan


There’s a lot of love for Richard III at the moment – the car park residing monarch and by association, the play. Whether by chance or, “some secret close intent”, Bristol’s Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory has struck programming gold by opening their 2013 season with the hunch-backed toad.

There are rôles in the Shakespeare cannon that are craved and cursed in equal measure. Craved because they are so significant, of such quality and so layered that actors just want to sink their teeth into them. Cursed, mainly for the same reasons as well as the fact that most of the audience are in a position to recite large chunks of the dialogue themselves. John Mackay flies in the face of expectation and gives Bristol audiences a truly original force of nature in his reading of Richard. From our first sight of him bounding onto the stage, houselights up, interrupting our pre-show conversation with his own “prophecies, libels and dreams”, Mackay rattles through the verse giving every thought and every idea a momentary flicker of consideration before moving on. He sets the pace, the tone and the energy of the evening as if shaking an imaginary magic 8 ball and acting on the advice until he gets fed up or bored and wants to shake again. He has fun, charm and menace in equal measure and is a theatrical Will o’ the Wisp.

The story of Richard III is one of a usurped crown being usurped still. Church and state are both at play here and the politics of the crown is a game Richard is willing to play but the game is a dangerous one; bring down all that stand between him and the throne. As the main players in the game tumble, Richard realises too late that he has left himself isolated. Director Andrew Hilton’s production carries the weight and stakes of church and state and is a force to be reckoned with. Cuts have been made but with a running time of over three hours it does feel at times that the end of the first half should have come about sooner. The cutting of Margaret does feel like the loss of a voice standing up to Richard and the loss of another female voice on stage.

Aside from Mackay, Lisa Kay as the long suffering Queen Elizabeth almost runs away with the evening. Kay’s performance is one of such power and resonance that despite all that she loses, she remains standing with integrity intact. The Richard/Elizabeth “I mean…to make her Queen of England” scene is a master class in acting and highlights the best of this production; clarity, power and a celebration of all that is great about Shakespeare.

Other highlights include Rupert Holliday Evans’ much maligned Clarence, more stoic than the so often seen morbid brother, resigned to death. His dream in the tower, so beautifully told, makes you glad his imminent dispatch will release him from the ugly world he inhabits. Christopher Bianchi’s all too fleeting appearance as Tyrell and Edward IV show two men with the weight of the world on their shoulders but for vastly different reasons. One with a moral dilemma, one with national peace at stake, both very different men, yet presented in a sharp and effortless manner by Bianchi.

With Harriet de Winton’s classy design and Elizabeth Purnell’s score, Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory’s 14th year kicks off with more than just a dash of Plantagenet panache.

Runs until 30th March.

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One comment

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    I never miss Hilton’s SATTF and this is one of the best. Mackay brings so much to the part – malevolence, humour, wit, evil, charm, the lot. Being in the round in such a tiny place means they have to extract everything possible from the script which they always do. Top acting all round – don’t miss it.