By William Shakespeare
Directed by Roxana Silbert
Venue: Swan Theatre
Date: Friday 23rd March 2012
This was only the second preview performance (press night 17th April), and although it was a little patchy there were signs of great potential for the future. It was also lovely to see a production that’s not distorted by some heavy concept which the director has imposed on it; this was a relatively straightforward telling of the story with some nice touches in the staging and some lovely comic performances.
The set first. At the back of the thrust there was a silvery grey panelled wall which could provide doors, windows, etc. as needed, as well as opening wide to reveal the space behind all the way to the bricks at the back. Above the stage hung a selection from the RSC’s vast store of light bulbs (Midsummer Night’s Dream) – good to see them recycling so effectively. They brightened, they dimmed, and for each execution one or two bulbs descended lower to represent the lives snuffed out. During the dream sequence, the bulbs came down again as each ghost had its say in Richard’s nightmare, and they stayed lowered during the rest of the play; only one or two had to be raised a bit again to avoid the flashing swords. That was it, although chairs, tables, thrones and the rest were brought on as needed. The costumes were a mixture; mainly modern, they were combined with armour and swords, and it worked for us.
The opening was done by having the king (Edward, that is) proceed onto the stage with his queen through the partially opened doors at the back. He was accompanied by his children, his brothers and his in-laws, and they were clearly celebrating the final victory of the Yorkist line. Even Richard looked happy. When the others left, he stayed behind to inform us of the situation – everything’s going well, but he’s not happy about it so he’s going to take the crown. Jonjo O’Neill wouldn’t have sprung to my mind as likely casting for this part, and from these opening speeches I would say he has some way to go to cover the full range this part demands. He’s more at home with the comedy, and once we were past the early scenes he managed that aspect very well, but these opportunities to show us the inner workings of his villainous mind were lacking in depth and clarity, which he’ll hopefully develop with more experience of the role. He’s also better looking than I would expect for a Richard, which threw me a little bit. Not that the other actors have been totally repulsive physically, but they have usually manifested a greater degree of deformity of body, mind or both. We’ll have to see how it goes.
Clarence and Hastings were soon dealt with, and for once I was aware that Mistress Shore had been involved with Edward and was now ‘attached’ to Hastings. After Richard left, Anne arrived with the corpse of her dead husband, Henry VI, carried on a bier and covered with an ornate red cloth. Pippa Dixon was a very good Anne, and played her part strongly. Richard’s wooing of her could do with being a bit crisper, but that will come in time. Her arguments against Richard were strong, and for once I wasn’t clear about her conversion; that may also have been my angle, which was blocked a lot tonight; don’t ask me about King Edward’s performance – he might as well have been a potato for all I could see of him! Anne did at least leave with some tartness in her final line, and then Richard halted the bearers to speak his first question – “Was ever woman in this humour woo’d?” – to them.
The queen entered for the next scene looking worried, and Rivers and Grey’s attempts to comfort her were in vain. I thought at first that Siobhan Redmond was using her own Scottish accent for this part, but later I realised she was using a posh English accent instead. However, it didn’t come easily from the sound of it, and I could still hear the Scottish intonation at times, and even a few vowel sounds when her character was letting rip. Not a problem, but again that will probably improve in time. By contrast, Stanley was played with as thick an accent as you could wish for, and later on I found his dialogue completely unintelligible because of it. I don’t mind accents as such, but when they get in the way of hearing the lines I reckon they need to cut back on them for clarity’s sake.
This is the scene where the brawling court unites against the previous queen, Margaret. She appeared in a tall window at the back, invisible to the court at first and also to me, sadly, as Paola Dionisotti gave one of the strongest performances of the entire play. She was still lively, not burdened with age but brisk and light on her feet. She was angry and bitter and wanted revenge, but her mind was sharp and she delivered her lines so beautifully that their meaning became crystal clear. Once she inserted herself into the scene properly, she walked around, unfazed by the scorn coming her way from the newly allied court, and dishing out plenty of her own in return. She was momentarily taken aback by Richard ending her curse early, but she soon recovered. When she was warning Buckingham about Richard, she stood next to him in the centre of the stage and spoke quietly. Richard was at the back of the stage, and when he asked Buckingham what Margaret had said, she was already on her way to the exit when Buckingham gave his reply.
After the brawling court had left the stage, Richard had a bit of a chat with us and then his two murderers turned up. This was where the humour really got going, as these two lads were very funny. Richard handed over the warrant which Catesby had only just handed to him before leaving the stage with the rest of the court. That done, we moved to the Tower, where Clarence told Brakenbury his dream. He sat on his bed – Brakenbury stood all the while – and although it’s not my favourite sequence I found this enjoyable enough. The whole scene lifted with the arrival of the murderers, though. Their discussion was brisk and very funny, and despite Clarence making a strong attempt to dissuade them, the first murderer stabbed him from behind while he was focused on persuading the second murderer, who was wavering. The body and the bed were soon disposed of, and we moved back to the court for the mock reconciliation scene.
This was the scene where I could see very little of the king. He was on a high throne – a chair that needed three steps to get up to it – with the queen on a normal throne to his right and the rest of the nobles spread around the stage. I can’t really comment on the staging of this bit as I saw so little of it, but the dialogue remained the same.
The Duchess of York had her little conversation with Clarence’s son and daughter, and then the queen came on to announce the death of the king; more complaining by the women, but they did it well enough that I wasn’t bored. The arrival of Richard, Buckingham and the rest put a stop to the complaints for now, and Richard’s performance was starting to get into its stride with the humour coming more to the fore. Buckingham made his allegiance clear, and then we skipped the citizens’ discussion of the political situation and moved straight into a shortened version of Act 2 scene 4, where the duchess, the queen and her younger son heard the news that Rivers and Grey have been sent to Pomfret on the orders of Gloucester and Buckingham.
Nothing much to report there, but when the new King arrived in London and Richard was explaining the absence of two of his uncles, Edward skipped the line “God keep me from false friends! But they were none”. I don’t know if that was intentional or a mistake; it certainly seemed odd but that may just be my familiarity with the lines. Richard also repeated “sanctuary children” with a smile and a shake of his head; what an absurd idea!
They trimmed the confrontation between Richard and the young Duke of York, but kept the request for the knife and the ensuing leap onto Richard’s back. Both Richard and the young Duke ended up on the floor, and Richard appeared to be trying to strangle the little chap until Buckingham put an end to their wrestling match. Catesby left to sound out Hastings, and Richard promised Buckingham a reward for his services once he was king, and then the scene changed to Hastings’ house. This was shown by having a window opened on the right of the wall with a door in the centre. We could see Mistress Shore through the window, indecently dressed (it is 4 a.m.) and she came along a bit later to help Hastings get dressed, as I recall. The first messenger warned Hastings to flee – he ignored him – and then Catesby turned up and put it to Hastings that the country would be better off with Richard on the throne. Hastings was having none of it, and rather stupidly suggested that his head would have to be cut off before he’d allow such a thing. How these people arrange their own downfall! Even Stanley couldn’t talk any sense into the man.
Rivers and Grey were executed next. Two bulbs were lowered, and then the men came on flanked by two guards each, Ratcliffe being one of them. A rope was put round each man’s neck, and they just had time to point out how Margaret’s curse had come upon them before the ropes were pulled tight and they were strangled to death.
Back in London, the council was meeting. The table was in the middle of the stage, two benches either side, and a chair at the far end. Hastings was in the chair, and the Bishop of Ely to his left, with Stanley on his right. Buckingham was free range for this scene. I’m not sure what gave me the impression, but I felt that this was one of several meetings that had been held for some time, possibly several weeks, and that they were finally prepared to set the date. I’ve never had that impression before, but as time is even more relative in Shakespeare than Einstein deduced, it was an interesting idea. The change in Hastings’ fortunes was swift, and the man recognised his doom. A light bulb was lowered for him as he commented on his fate, slightly shortened by a few well-placed cuts (to the comments).
The comedy level now reached new heights with the persuasion of the mayor. Richard and Buckingham re-arranged the furniture, throwing over the table and chairs, and with their armour on, prepared to act as if they were under siege. There were windows in the back wall at this point, and from behind the wall came the sounds of swords clashing, but we were aware that it was just Ratcliffe, on his own, banging several swords against each other. Occasionally Richard leant out and had a go himself, as Ratcliffe provided the sound effects of a multitude of soldiers. This was very funny.
As they were preparing the scene, Richard asked Buckingham if he could play his part in the pretence. Buckingham was very scornful in his reply, using a posh Scottish accent instead of his usual one, mimicking the voice and behaviour of “the deep tragedian” nicely. With the arrival of the mayor, they got down to business. Ratcliffe soon entered with Hastings’ head, holding it by the ear, and the emotional suffering displayed by Richard and Buckingham was great fun. The mayor was easily led into agreeing to tell the citizens the ‘correct’ version of events, and Buckingham was sent after him to add some extra details to promote Richard’s cause.
When Ratcliffe left the stage earlier, he placed Hastings’ head on the floor by the back wall. The next character to come on, the scrivener, was able to refer to this when he informed us of the strange goings-on at court; how he was asked to write the indictment on Lord Hastings long before he’d been charged, and now here he was, dead. It didn’t come across so well to me this time, though I liked the staging. I think the scrivener may have taken the head off with him.
When Buckingham returned, he told Richard of the populace’s silence at the story he was spinning them. The details about the recorder were omitted, as were the few who cheered, so Richard had to leave very quickly to set up the prayer book and two churchmen photo op. The mayor arrived with some of the citizens, and they stood all around the auditorium and on the balconies. Catesby was sent out, very reluctantly, to speak to them first. His stumbling over the story to be told suggested this was a hastily cobbled together plan rather than a carefully prepared one, which is usually the way. With Catesby coming out a second time, and Buckingham spinning the ‘news’ for all it was worth, this was a very funny scene, especially as we could see ‘monks’ running around behind the windows, and once Richard actually prompted Catesby loudly from behind the wall. When Richard did appear with the churchmen, he and they stood in the three windows at the back, apparently oblivious to the assembled throng. I don’t remember if they made anything of the reference to a prayer book. The arguments between Buckingham and Richard were edited, and soon Richard was proclaimed king. With the crowd gone, the monks were paid off by Catesby, and the rest of Richard’s team left him alone on stage. The first half ended with him standing in that middle window, grinning, as the lights went down.
The second half opened with the gathering of the women, intending to visit young King Edward in the Tower. Earlier I had the thought that there must have been an amazing number of high-quality boy players in the Chamberlain’s Men around the time Will wrote this play, as there are so many strong parts for women in it. And they all get very long speeches to do as well. Anyway, the actresses playing these women were all good, so although these parts are often trimmed, they carried them off pretty well. Mind you, the moaning and groaning does go on a bit, so judicious editing is a must, and I would have preferred a little less of Anne’s speech before she went off to be crowned; it’s mostly a repeat of what she said earlier, so a bit of pruning wouldn’t go amiss.
Richard had been crowned, and entered with his court from the back of the stage. The high throne had been brought on, but with its back to the audience which was quite funny – when he sat on it he was forever looking round at us, which made us part of the whispering. He motioned for the rest of the court to shove off and carry on the party on the far side of the wall, and then he got down to suborning Buckingham for the deaths of his nephews. Unfortunately Buckingham also had his back to me, so I don’t know how he played this bit, other than requesting some time to think about it. Richard called Ratcliffe over and asked him to suggest a possible murderer, he suggested Tyrell, fetched him over, and the deal was soon struck. Richard and Hamlet have very little in common as far as getting things done is concerned – this was very brisk and decisive.
When Buckingham came back, he was too late to get involved, and Richard dismissed his pestering requests for the promised reward by emphatically stating “I am not in the giving vein today”. The other conversations Richard had with other characters were slotted in somewhere along the line, and then we moved on to Tyrell’s description of the murder of the two young princes in the Tower. After he reported this to Richard, and Richard explained his various stratagems to us, the news of the defections of Ely and Buckingham arrived, and the final battle wasn’t far off.
First, though, there was a short remembrance ceremony for the two princes, as wreaths and bouquets were brought on stage and left by the back wall. Queen Elizabeth and the Duchess of York, overlooked by Margaret, added to them, and had another go at expressing their grief and suffering. Margaret could top them all, and it was another opportunity to hear Paola Dionisotti’s marvellous delivery of these lines. When Richard turned up, he shocked the women by adding his own contribution to the flowers – two teddy bears, one with a blue ribbon round its neck, the other with a red ribbon. I didn’t see this bit fully from my position, and Steve didn’t see it at all; hopefully we’ll get a fuller picture next time around.
During Richard’s negotiation with Elizabeth over her daughter, I noticed that Siobhan Redmond was clenching her fists behind her back, both when she had her back to us and later, when she was facing the other way. I took this to mean that Elizabeth was not convinced by Richard’s arguments, and was simply going along with the political reality. They did this scene pretty fully, and then the battle plans started. From here it’s fairly straightforward to the end of the play, with the executed and murdered lining up on the side of Richmond, and hardly anyone supporting Richard. Messengers rushed on and off to bring us updates on the military situation, Stanley made his position clear to Richmond when they met briefly, Buckingham was executed – another light bulb, another reference to Margaret’s abilities – and then Richmond and Richard squared up, metaphorically speaking, for the decisive battle. No replays, it’s winner take all on the day.
The two sides came on at the back and occupied the stage briefly while they told us the necessary information, and then Richard came on to do his pen and ink bit. They set up a desk and chair to the right of the stage, and he fell asleep over it. At this point, the ghosts began to come forward, starting with the young king, Edward, who ran on and snatched the crown off Richard’s head, making him wake up. As each ghost came on to add their curse, a light bulb descended as they had for the deaths. Hastings ended up with the crown, and after Richard had been thoroughly demoralised, he was lying at the front of the stage looking towards the back where Richmond stood, arms outstretched, receiving the blessings of the ghosts. This was a nice double effect; Richard didn’t just get the curses, he also saw the ghosts bless Richmond, while Richmond himself was having this wonderful dream about how all the people whom Richard had killed were coming to him and giving him their support. I liked this staging very much.
The next day, we heard each manager’s team talk before the battle. Richmond was noble and uplifting as you would expect, while Richard was sneering and contemptuous. The fighting was kept to a minimum, with four on Richard’s side walking to the front of the stage and turning to face four on Richmond’s side who lined up at the back – the panels had been folded back to reveal the full depth of the stage by this time. The two lots charged at each other and fought for a bit, then they cleared away leaving Richard lying in the middle of the stage with blood on his mouth, calling for a horse. Richmond came on and they fought, with Richmond naturally winning. The young Elizabeth of York was present for Richmond’s final speeches, and ran to embrace him, showing that this will be a love match rather than an arranged political marriage. With all the living and most of the dead now happy, it was a good point to end the play, so they did.
With Jonjo O’Neill reining back his accent a bit, there weren’t too many problems with his lines tonight, though his performance was definitely on the lighter side of the Richard III spectrum. The story was told relatively clearly, and with practice this should be a good production, with some excellent performances already. I’ve mentioned Paola Dionisotti earlier; Alex Waldmann was both funny and menacing as Catesby, as was Neal Barry as Ratcliffe and Joshua Jenkins as the second murderer. Worth catching again.
© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me