By William Shakespeare
Directed by Jennie Buckman
Venue: Swan Theatre
Date: Friday 8th September 2006
They were performing on the set for the RSC’s Much Ado About Nothing – a Cuban bar – with a pole, light bulbs strung round the place and bits of broken up tarmac on the stage. This made for lots of crunching sounds as people walked, danced, etc., and left lots of bits on costumes. At times, given how much Richard was leaping about, it was like a crunchy soft shoe shuffle. Very unfortunate. The RADA set itself was a simple white sheet, hung over the back balcony, and used for silhouettes, projection, and with a slit for a doorway. Very effective.
The costumes were very retro. Doublet and hose for the men, period dress for the women. While it’s nice to see lots of lean and muscular masculine legs, there was no benefit in choosing this style. It didn’t add to the production. There were some costume changes, because of the doubling.
Overall, this production needed better editing of the text. The already excessive one hour twenty-five minutes overran by 15 minutes – a long time to expect young kids to sit still on a gym floor. I was toiling towards the end, because of the long drive up. The opening was strangely drawn-out, and for me it added nothing to the production. For about five minutes before the start, there were two couples standing in the front corners, chatting quietly to each other – whispering sweet nothings, judging by the actions. A couple of servants appeared at the curtain, and shortly afterwards the house lights went down. The King came through the curtain, with the Queen, and the three couples began a dance. While this was going on, Richard of Gloucester crept slowly onto the stage, finally launching into one of the most famous opening lines of all time. At least he could indicate the King when talking about “this sun/son of York”. And we were shown, in mime, the initial stages of Clarence’s arrest. Otherwise a slow way to start a play that already has time problems.
From there we jump straight into Richard’s hyper performance – waving his arms around like he’s trying to use semaphore as well as speak the part, striding the length and breadth of the stage just to show us his legs do work. This was definitely over the top, and I wondered at the time if such a young actor would be able to handle the demands of this role.
Fortunately, the next scene we get is Anne escorting King Henry VI’s body to church. Despite her early attempts to outdo Richard in the histrionics department, this gradually settled down into a nice exchange between these characters, Richard displaying his brass neck to full advantage, and Anne managing to find it in her heart to call a truce, if not forgive entirely. I don’t know if this is a really tricky scene to do, or if it’s so well written it’s almost infallible, but at least the performances were shaping up.
Other good points: the servants we see at the start turn into the two murderers, both excellent performances. First murderer, Forest, is played with a Welsh accent, and displays a perfectionist’s commitment to the important task of bumping off a member of the royal family. He lays out his bundle of implements carefully, checks them all, and then puts on his apron and large red rubber gloves with precision. All this business takes him right through the dialogue, so he’s ready for action when Clarence wakes up. The second murderer, Dighton, is much more panicky, but recovers himself as quick as you like once Forest reminds him of the money involved. Clarence himself was very good in this scene. Without the preamble of his fatal dream, he has to start from scratch, and manages to express greater panic in pleading for his life than I’ve seen before. Here, it worked.
I liked the use of silhouettes to show Richard at prayer with the monks, and also the bribing of the audience to shout “Long live Richard, England’s worthy King”. Sadly, the money was fake, so being typical peasants, we refused to do anything for it, but Richard was still offered the crown anyway. While they might have edited out the dream scene before the battle, I did like they way the ghosts spoke their lines all together – not only saving time, but emphasising the sheer number of people Richard had both pissed off and bumped off during his villainous career. One slightly naughty tweak to the text gave the young king, Edward V, a play on words that allowed Richard and Buckingham to laugh sycophantically. “Fie! what a slug is Hastings, that he makes not haste to tell us…” instead of the “comes” in my edition. Still a good laugh, so I’m not complaining.
Not so good points: they could have cut a lot more of the play, especially much of the women’s wailing and cursing, the pre-battle dream sequence, and the opening dance. It was a difficult piece to choose from an editing point of view. I don’t know if they were given a free hand, or a shortlist, or what. The action is all very well, but the heart of the play is the nature of Richard’s villainy and its outcomes, and that didn’t come across so well in this version. The humour was fine, but it didn’t satisfy me.
© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me