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February 10, 2011

Richard III (Propeller) @ The Belgrade, Coventry

In stark contrast to last night's interval concert, audience serenades and jovial banter, Propeller last night erected a stony wall between the audience and the stage. As Richard Clothier's Richard delivered his "Was ever woman in this humour wooed?" speech, he limped about the stage and then paused. A woman in the front row was using her phone. He waited, then politely said "When you're ready", occasioning a mumbled apology from the woman, before resuming his speech. While sympathising with Clothier's annoyance (one wishes, in retrospect, that he'd unleashed the terrifying masked attendants who prowled among the audience at the start of the second half!), the effect of this moment was to snap the audience out of the production. Where the company's Errors was characterised by its easygoing ensemble nature and the fluidity of its performativity (one always saw the actors, not the characters), Richard III was an entirely different beast, a more traditional production that maintained a stylistic unity and a fourth wall throughout.

This was, of course, entirely appropriate to a play which deals with far more sombre subject matter than Propeller's previous few productions. A direct sequel to the company's Rose Rage, Edward Hall and designer Michael Pavelka adopted the trappings of an abattoir as a thematic set - transparent plastic curtains, blunt tools, stained chopping blocks and a silent chorus wearing face masks made up of bandages. Screens were pushed around the stage, allowing characters to appear and disappear fluidly, and an England flag was run up a post; this abattoir was England, a place in which people were coolly butchered and strung up. Violence was senseless, bloody and industrialised, condemned characters becoming meat. In a bid for humour - although not actually hugely funny - the violence became increasingly gory: Clarence was killed by a Murderer drilling into his head; Catesby took a chainsaw to Hastings behind a plastic curtain, ending the first half with the splatter of blood on the wall; and Buckingham had his entrails drawn out with a huge rusty hook. Drawing on traditions of grand guignol and black comic horror, the gore sometimes felt unnecessary but acted as a necessary contrast to the sanitised scheming of the prime movers and shakers.

This was seen in the foregrounding of Catesby (David Newman) and Ratcliffe (Dugald Bruce-Lockhart) as civil servants. Catesby, with slicked-back hair and a permanent sneer, was the consummate amoral servant, taking pleasure in his casual slighting of his peers. As Hastings defied Richard, Catesby smiled unpleasantly before leaving the stage to make his report. After Hastings was left alone, Catesby himself put on gloves and revved up a chainsaw, pushing Hastings behind the curtain. Ratcliffe was perhaps even more terrifying. Suited and tailed, he spent most of the production watching his pocket-watch, which ticked loudly over the sound system, creating an urgent and pressing underscore. Where Catesby took pleasure in his involvement, Ratcliffe was utterly indifferent to his actions. An administrator responsible for making sure everything happened to time, he was frequently found in the abattoir surrounded by the chorus, holding up his watch until the ticking stopped, at which point he nodded for the killings to commence. When it came to Richard's final death, Ratcliffe and his watch were still there. While this was Richard's story, then, an underlying current made it clear that it was administrators, not monarchs, who perpetuated the systems.

The role of Catesby and Ratcliffe was pointed up even further in the case of Tyrrell (Wayne Cater). With a plastic face mask, braces and a selection of torture instruments, Tyrrell formed an imposing and entirely silent presence. As Richard quizzed him, Catesby and Ratcliffe stood either side of Richard and spoke on his behalf. Their mediation between decision-maker and blunt instrument reinforced the impression that they were guiding the action to its inexorable, time-dependent conclusion, diminishing Richard's own agency. Richard's own attempts to take control over his own destiny were manifested in his own murders - he entered following Clarence's death to dispatch both of the Murderers; he suffocated and then snapped Anne's neck in the middle of the court, clutching her to his chest as if in an embrace; and he stabbed Tyrrell in the back. While using this to maintain a state of fear and isolation, it increasingly troubled him. As Tyrrell died, the Chorus sang a children's song which slowed down to silence as he fell. Suddenly, as if a record starting up again, their voices sprang back into life, and Tyrrell leapt to his feet and strode off the stage, to Richard's horror. He was already beginning to see his ghosts.

Clothier's Richard was a charismatic figure. While the cast were mostly dressed in late Victorian/Edwardian formal and butchering dress, Richard stood a head taller than most, exaggerated by his bleached blond hair, and wore a black outfit with cloak that had a metallic sheen to it. With only one hand, and a leg in metal brace, he was clearly debilitated but still stronger than those around him (his own murders were often conducted with his remaining hand around the victim's throat). His clipped accent and perfect articulation were convincing, both for his onstage gulls and the theatre audience who wished to believe in a Richard who could command such respect. Entirely insincere, he won people over with showmanship, whether whipping flowers out of his sleeve for Anne or waiting patiently on bended knee before Elizabeth as she agreed to give him her daughter.

The women, played entirely straight, were one of the production's strongest aspects. Despite heavy cutting (Clarence's children, Dorset, the scene of the women trying to get into the tower), Margaret was retained in the sober, bitter person of Tony Bell, and Anne and Elizabeth were given plenty of time to make an impact as the production's emotional core. Jon Trenchard's Anne was dwarved by Richard, a particularly brutal factor in the suffocating death scene, which Richard preceded by explaining directly to Anne that he needed to marry Elizabeth's daughter. Trenchard's delicate voice and quavering demeanour rendered Richard's forthright actions in the wooing scene particualrly despicable/compelling. The moment in which Anne slowly, tentatively offered her hand for his ring was perverted after her murder - two flunkies attempted to pull the body away, but Richard grabbed her hand and attempted to pull the ring off. Failing, he turned and bit the whole finger off, spitting it out casually as he reclaimed the ring for his new wife.

The treatment of the dead was a recurring point of comedy. Bodies were dumped into bags, which were then tossed over shoulders, thrown to the side or beaten mercilessly. The entrace for Richard's coronation was particularly impressive: to an electic guitar riff, the Chorus sang a Latin chant, and Richard and Anne entered along a carpet of bodybags (Richard confidently, Anne struggling to stay upright). The disrespectful and casual treatment of bodies was, of course, a comment on the value placed on life, but also on the memories of the dead: Richard's need to forget his victims was brought to the fore, and undone in the face of Tyrrell's ghost. This motif was central to the Bosworth Field night scene. Richard and Robert Hands's Richmond were placed back to back on a gurney, and a series of upright, struggling bodybags was revealed behind them. Unzipping themselves, the ghosts emerged in turn to walk around the gurney, wishing Richard to sweet dreams and awaking the amazed Richmond. I particularly disliked the decision to overlap the speeches so that the enemies were addressed simultaneously, as it meant we missed much of the poetry and symmetry of the scene, but the visual image was extremely effective.

Music was central to the overall effect of the production, unifying the comic/grotesque and the more solemn elements. The company sang a series of Latin chants and devotional hymns, mostly acapella, and in juxtaposition with the casual violence the appeal to the divine was peculiarly compelling, even desperate, as if the anonymous characters were searching for meaning in their actions. It also served to satirise the use of religion to justify actions, most powerfully as Richard performed his praying and flagellation for the benefit of the mob. Two variations in the music had varying success: the high-pitched children's nursery rhyme that accompanied the princes - two expressive puppets manipulated by the company - sounded a note of pathos and innocence that served these scenes well. The diminutive size of the puppets made their presence in the adult scenes (particularly that before the tower) extremely vulnerable, with Richard towering above them; and the later appearance of their heads in a glass jar was horrific. The other musical interlude was the "Scrivener's Rap", a Billy Bragg-esque call to arms by Tony Bell in a Cockney accent, that attempted to establish a note of civic discord but was jarringly out of place.

The other performances were strong, establishing key presences within a linear succession of deaths. John Dougall as Clarence gave another strong vocal performance, articulating his dream in hugely evocative terms. The character was seen being blinded early on after his arrest, and Dougall found a wonderful dignity in the character, standing in night-shirt in his prison cell and looking into an unseen distance as he addressed the murderers. Robert Hands began as a debauched Edward IV, stagging about the stage topless and drunk before hugging his brothers for a group photograph, but descended into sickly spluttering as he lay on a surgical chair that doubled as a throne. Thomas Padden's Hastings and Chris Myles's Buckingham, meanwhile, began in the Catesby and Ratcliffe supportive roles, but made the fatal error of developing independent personalities which immediately incurred Richard's wrath. Within a system dependent on complicit, passive administration, there was no room for demands of loyalty or reward.

While this was one of the less successful of the Propeller productions I've been fortunate enough to see, the very fact that it became a collaborative production without a single dominating figure was impressive enough. The progression towards the climax of Richard's tragedy was actually quite dull, with too much lost in the rush (the prioritisation of Stanley's subplot towards the end, for example, made very little impression). The end was fitting, however. Richard entered on the same surgical chair on which Edward had died, sputtering blood and fatally wounded, as he cried for a horse. Richmond entered and shot him. Turning to the audience, Richmond kneeled and raised his arms to heaven - one hand clutching a crucifix, the other a pistol, while the crown rested on his head. As he delivered his speech of piety, on "That would with treason wound this land's fair peace", Richard began laughing, a hacking, cruel cackle. Richmond stood up and shot him again in the head and returned to the audience. The undercutting of Richmond's own holy image by the laughing Richard reminded us, once more, that this was an ongoing story of big ambitions and performed sentiments; but behind the saintly facade, the dirty machinery of slaughter still stood.

March 04, 2008

Richard III @ The Courtyard Theatre: Highlights

The big finish! And, if I’m truly honest, it was a slightly disappointing end to the week. Not because of the company, who kept up the energy right to the end, but for two reasons. Firstly, Richard III is a play dominated by one performance. The wonderful thing about the Histories ensemble is that there are so many good performers, and it’s a shame that the last play of the eight is so dominated by the title character, most of the rest of the company only getting a scene or two to shine. The second slight disappointment came from the fact that this production felt so dissociated from the others, in that it translated itself into modern dress. I have nothing against modern dress productions, but when the other seven were all medieval or Elizabethan (with a hint of WWI in Henry V), it felt quite odd that suddenly we were seeing suits and digital cameras on stage, making it feel that little bit separated from the other productions.

BUT, having got the disappointments out of the way, this production was vastly improved on last time, and the company were as good as ever. Highlights as follows:

  • Yet again topping the bill, Julius D’Silva was a fascinating Catesby. Suited and bespectacled, calm and threatening, D’Silva reinvented Catesby as part-cleric, part-administrator. He heralded the deaths of Vaughan and Hastings by entering with a smile and a cappucino. This Catesby killed with memos and headlines, the man making Richard’s takover happen behind the scenes. Most hysterically, in the riot staged for the Mayor’s (Kieran Hill) benefit, he donned a headset and littered the stage himself, before barking commands (“Go helicoptors, go explosion”), in effect stage-managing the fake riot, throwing up his arms in triumph as all the cues went off as planned. Loyal to Richard right to the end, he panted in absolute shock at the end of the battle as he looked on his dead leader. It was one of those performances which can make you really see a character for the first time.
  • A couple of very nice links came out of seeing the play so close to the Henry VI trilogy. Chris McGill as Grey told Margaret how Northumberland had weeped while she killed York – and of course, it was McGill who had played Northumberland in the previous play, giving a lovely echo to this speech. A line was also added to Stanley’s meeting in the field with Richmond from 1 Henry VI, allowing Keith Bartlett to christen Lex Shrapnel with “Now art thou seal’d the son of chivalry” – having made the same exchange when they played Talbot and John Talbot in the earlier play. Finally, the Young York was seen laying out tiny pebbles in the same pattern that his grandfather had once done when demonstrating to Warwick and Salisbury his claim to the throne, in a very neat touch.
  • Nick Asbury and Keith Dunphy excelled as Vaughan and Lovell, the two murderers of Clarence. Dunphy brought all the menace he had displayed as Young Clifford to the role, while Asbury blustered. The two made an excellent comic pair, particularly as they revealed enormous machetes from inside their tailored suits. The continuation of their story was interesting, as first Catesby and Ratcliffe arrested Vaughan as he tried to flee the country, then had him executed at Lovell’s hand along with Rivers and Grey.
  • Jonathan Slinger gave another impressive performance as Richard, particularly dwelling on the character’s sexual obsessions, including kissing Lady Grey passionately when passing on a kiss for her daughter, leering at women in the front row and spitting defiance as he talked of his misshapen body. In contrast, his skipping delight in the dream sequence where he awoke to find himself healed was moving in its childlike joy, and after the dream his moment of soul-searching finally showed the pain of the character, as he cried out “Am I a villain?”
  • Richard Cordery was a very good Buckingham, and provided the best laugh of the performance with his withering comments on the Young York’s wit. “So cunning and so young”, then a long pause, a look up into the galleries with his eyes rolling and: “Wonderful”.
  • Family became very important in the play’s closing moments. As Richard screamed for a horse, his father (Clive Wood) appeared silently on the balcony, and Richard scrambled towards him. As he pleaded with his dead father, the ghosts of his dead mother and nephews appeared with him. Later, at the climax of the play, the dead appeared all around the balconies watching over Richmond’s ascension, and all were grouped in their family groups: Warwick and Anne; Clarence and his children; Hastings and Shore; Edward and his Queen etc. Richard’s isolation was part of his downfall.
  • The dream sequence, where a newly-healed Richard had his disabilities revisited upon him by those he had murdered, was a brilliant concept, linked in to the ways in which the ghosts had been murdered. Where Hastings (an excellent Tom Hodgkins) had had strawberries smeared across his head by Richard, he smeared Richard’s huge birthmark onto his shaved head. Clarence, felled by a sword swipe across his guts, sliced Richard across the same, causing his hunched posture. Rivers, shot in the leg before his execution, shot Richard in the same place, causing his limp. It was a brilliant move that made physical the curses of the ghosts.
  • James Tucker, as Clarence, really impressed in his description of the dream, underscored by the always-effective music. Curled up in bed, he spoke his long speech beautifully, evoking the character’s fear to chilling effect.
  • Katy Stephens was also chilling as Margaret, evoking both her younger self and her previous role as Joan. The lifesize bones of her son that she laid out echoed Joan’s conjuring bones, and in talking to the young Marquis of Dorset, played by Wela Frasier, she saw the ghost of her boy, coming close to Dorset and almost embracing him. Her cursing was powerful, and in her brief scenes she once again dominated the stage.
  • Ann Ogbomo was a highlight as Queen Elizabeth, handling her long rhetorical scenes well and visibly becoming more crushed as her family was taken from her one by one. Her cries were heartbreaking.
  • Mistress Shore (Alexia Healy) was brought on for additional scenes, appearing in an early street scene as well as dressed in just an oversized shirt with Hastings. Most effectively, Richard brought her on in the council scene when condemning her, putting Hastings in the awful position of having to distance himself while looking on her bloodied body. Tom Hodgkins was excellent here, showing the panic of the character, and their reunion in death felt like a sort of happy ending.
  • I don’t know what their names were, but the four child actors were very good, particularly the ones playing the young Edward and York, holding their own very well among the adults.

There were lots of other excellent moments: Geoffrey Streatfeild as a blindfolded Rivers fumbling in the dark only to find his dead brother; Hannah Barrie’s poisoned Anne starting to look faint during the slow-motion party scene; Chuk Iwuji prostrating himself before Richard as the dead Henry VI before somersaulting to his feet and Lex Shrapnel on top form as the conquering Richmond, spinning the massive staircase holding Richard around and pushing it hard into a wall. It was dominated by Slinger’s performance, but the fantastic concepts and solid performances in the other roles kept the long play moving quickly. Another standing ovation, in recognition of the whole week as much as this performance, was a fitting end to a fantastic few days.

February 13, 2007

Richard III: An Arab Tragedy @ The Swan Theatre

The final ‘response’ play saw the hugely-respected Sulayman Al-Bassam theatre company coming to the Swan, presenting a reworked ‘Richard III’ that relocated the action to the contemporary Middle East, a world of oilfields, bickering clans, foreign policies and constant surveillance. It’s been hugely built up over the year, as a new RSC commission, and promised to be something very special.

Promotional poster for Richard III: An Arab Tragedy

After seeing it, I have to confess to feeling slightly underwhelmed. There was much that I found very exciting about the production, but equally much I found frustrating or simply not very good. I’m very interested to see what the press think tomorrow night, as it’s the kind of production which invites praise simply by virtue of its intent and cultural background. Yet intent can’t disguise much of what was sloppy about the production.

Actors stumbled over lines, interrupting each other in the wrong places and causing awkward pauses. Elsewhere, a vastly edited text (‘Richard III’ in under two hours!) meant that the pace varied wildly- key scenes were rushed through almost at a run, while other scenes slowed to a crawl. To me, it felt under-rehearsed, a close (though far better funded) sibling to the Young People’s Shakespeare back in September.

The play weaved together a mix of dialects and ways of speaking, reflected in the surtitles. At times, the translation closely followed Shakespeare’s text, the language being ‘high’ and poetical. At others, it was rewritten in a far more contemporary idiom, and at other points the text was completely new, filling in the spaces for this relocated play. While this was very interesting, it also meant the tone of the play varied wildly. As the person next to me commented, “Nobody would speak like this in Arabic”- characters jumped between everyday and exceedingly poetical forms of speech, with no obvious distinction between the types of scene that made this appropriate.

However, there was much to be admired about the play as well. The new setting made quite a lot of sense. Anne’s wooing now took place in a female mourning room, Richmond became the invading Allied Forces, trying to win the hearts and minds of the people, Richard’s reluctant acceptance of the crown took place on a TV debate show, with politicians and celebrities calling in, and the oil fields that Buckingham was promised became an important bartering tool as the country crumbled around Richard.

The most exciting things about this production came in the characters of Buckingham and Catesby. Catesby was her the servant of Hastings, who quickly entered Richard’s employ, playing his master and Stanley of against the court, leading the questions on the debate show, backing Buckingham in public orations, wielding a ready sword against Richard’s enemies and even offering to kill the Princes when Tyrrell was ‘unavailable’. After killing them, though, he entered a period of guilt-ridden atonement, singing a mournful dirge as he prayed for forgiveness, eventually leaving Richard alone on his horse.

Buckingham was even more interesting. From the start he manned a bank of TV monitors with views of conversations around the palace. He was in constant communication with the American Ambassador, informing him as Richard’s rivals were picked off, and helping Richard ascend to the throne. A Frenchman, Buckingham here became a representation of the West interfering in the politics of the East to its own advantage. Amoral, in complete control of Richard and concerned only with obtaining the oil fields he had been promised, he had real power among the feuding locals, and Richard completely humbled himself before him. It was Buckingham who had possibly the play’s key speech, as he explained to Richard the machinations by which he could force any political play he wanted by simply signing the right things or setting the right events in motion. Asked again, “But HOW do you excuse all of these things?” he simply replied “Three words. War. On. Terror.”

The satire of the play was pointed. At one point, a news report stated that “Minister Hastings has been arrested on suspicion of treason. In related news, Minister Hastings was hanged this morning for treason, and his head interrogated in the square”. Using one of Britain’s lowest periods, Al-Bassam has found a great deal of relevance to his own time and place, and managed to include critiques both of Western foreign policy and on the political intrigues of the Arab World.

This play seemed to me to have more theoretical artistic value than was realised on stage. It could have been a fascinating and deeply moving production, with more careful editing and more rehearsal. As it stood, it was a flawed but deeply engaging look at an unfamiliar society through one of our most familiar stories, and I did enjoy it overall.

January 28, 2007

Richard III @ The Courtyard Theatre

It’s impossible not to notice that, throughout all the publicity material, posters, press shots, reviews and everything else surrounding the fourth installment in Michael Boyd’s history cycle, there is only one face leering out. Despite the emphasis that this company has placed on ensemble playing, despite the universal praise for the all-round excellence of the acting in the ‘Henry VI’ trilogy, despite him only having emerged as a major RSC figure over the last year, this is Jonathan Slinger’s play. It is he who, in a first for this company, takes a unique bow amid the curtain calls. It is he who dominates the stage and the critical reviews with his funny, evil, sickeningly unpleasant portrayal of one of Shakespeare’s best-known roles. It is he, in short, who IS this production.

Jonathan Slinger (Richard III)

While it seems unfair to focus all the attention of such a huge production (3 and a half hours, with an enormous cast and big concept) on one actor, it has always been impossible to dissociate this play from its lead character. Slinger’s Richard is a typically nasty bit of work, full of dark humour, excess spittle and a furiously kinetic energy that propels him on one bad leg around the stage. It’s a rivetting performance, though it did at times feel stuck in one gear. I got the impression that he wasn’t having one of his best performances, and certainly didn’t seem as happy as I’ve seen him before at the end of the play. Whether or not it was his best, it was definitely a solid Richard and a surprisingly sympathetic one at times. In his dream, he awoke to find his hump gone and his arm and leg whole, and gave his first genuine laugh of the whole play as he danced around, revelling in his momentary health

No play can stand on one man alone though (are you listening, Trevor Nunn and Ian McKellen?), and the production itself was a daring one. Though linked by set, music and aspects of style to the ‘Henry VI’ plays, the designers completely reinvented the setting, updating it to contemporary times. Soldiers wielded guns, Richard used helicoptors to intercept Henry’s funeral procession and Tyrrell recorded the death of the princes on a digital camera. Richard presented the crown prince with an enormous orange space hopper (which found its way my lap), and he cordoned off the stage with police tape for the benefit of the Lord Mayor. The contemporary setting seemed to work, though with the usual complaints muttered about people saying “Swords” before holding up “Guns” (it’s figurative!).

Boyd’s love of ghosts carried across to this play, with Henry VI lying down in front of Richard at his coronation and York crowning his son. The final ghost scene, too, took an interesting twist- the dream Richard’s healthy body was in turn wounded by each ghost as it passed, reducing him once more to his deformed and shrivelled self.

There were strong performances throughout. Julius D’Silva deserves special mention for his utterly creepy Catesby, here an efficient and emotionless lawyer who caused as much harm with his pen as others did with their guns. Richard Cordery’s Buckingham had an unusual hold over Richard, ordering him around and even grabbing him by the throat at one point, yet finally reduced to carrying his monarch on his shoulders after his execution. Katy Stephens was also excellent as Margaret, carrying her dead son’s skeleton on her back and laying out his bones as she cursed her foes. Margaret is frequently cut from stand-alone productions, so it was good to see her in the context of what had come before and relishing her role as the voice of the past. Thankfully, the scenes of lamenting women were partly abbreviated- they do drag on something rotten, however well they’re performed.

I have to confess to being a little disappointed. It was an excellent production, just not as good as the three earlier episodes. Partly it’s the fact that ‘Richard III’ is, controversially, one of my least favourite Shakespeare plays. While Slinger’s performance was excellent, it was disappointing how little many of the rest of the ensemble had to do, and the finale rushed the battle scene, Richard dying suddenly and undramatically, hitting the floor in a corner before we’d even seen the danger to him.

Disappointment does not mean lack of enjoyment though. Yes, it wasn’t as good as I’d hoped, but it was still excellent and a cut above the average RSC production. The Courtyard allowed for a ‘Richard III’ that played up close and personal, with Richard insinuating himself among the audience as much as his onstage companions. 3 and a half hours flew by, and as an ending to the tetralogy it fitted very nicely. Jonathan Slinger is now pretty much guaranteed to be established as a major player, and the company as a whole can be proud of an impressive achievement. Roll on ‘Richard II’ in a few months!

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Peter Kirwan is Teaching Associate in Shakespeare and Early Modern Drama at the University of Nottingham and a reviewer of Shakespearean theatre for several academic journals.

The Bardathon is his experimental review blog, covering productions of (or based on) all early modern plays. The aim is to combine immediate reactions with the detail and analysis of the academic review.

Theatre criticism always needs more voices. Please comment with your own views and contributions!

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