Watching this purposefully precious production, with its vaudevillanous title role (Bell), with Anna Volska’s Queen Elizabeth done initially as a refugee from Restoration comedy and other characters capering as if infected with the Madness of King George, I felt for the first time in my life that this play, far from being a denigration of Richard, is a daring send-up by the Bard of the phony “history” of the Tudormongers.
The devout members of the Richard the Third societies, far from objecting to the play as muck-raking their hero, might well hail the play as pricking the bullshit balloons of Hall, Holinshed and (dare I say it) St Thomas More. (But we must remember that More as a youth served in the household of John Morton, then a cardinal, but Bishop of Ely in Richard’s lifetime, and a strong opponent of Richard.) More, Hall and Holinshed may well have believed the “histories” they wrote, but Shakespeare, I think, saw through the distortions. In his play he further inflated the falsehoods to such a degree that I feel he could not have expected any but the most gullible to believe them.
This production amusingly severs suspension of disbelief. Gow and designer Robert Kemp have set all the action in an improbable room reminiscent of Wuthering Heights in full siege. Even the Battle of Bosworth Field is fought in the room, with a deluded Richard calling ludicrously for his notorious horse.
If Shakespeare’s aim was to subversively deconstruct the Tudors’ sanctimonous smearing of Richard, this surreally staged version makes perfect sense. And against the overall absurdities, the gawking gestures and the vocal flounces, we are moved by the heartfelt poetic outpourings of such as Penny Everingham’s bereaved Duchess of York and Sean O’Shea’s nightmare-drowning Clarence, as well as occasional moments of trembling pity from servants and messengers, which come as welcome non-comic relief. Also, with the bitter, brooding Queen Margaret regretfully excised, it is necessary that Lady Anne should (metaphorically) grab Richard by the balls, since Margaret is not there to supply the challenge that Shakespeare (defying history) wanted. Blazey Best’s full-throttle-grieving Anne even has moments of surprising Bell’s “cool man” conception of Richard. While Bell’s overall air of clinical detachment matches most of his text, I would have liked more internal dislocation in his handling of his non-typical speech, namely the one that follows his exposure to the ghosts of his victims (rolling in a sound-and-light whirlpool of great credit to movement director Gavin Robins).
The absence of Margaret makes it hard for Richard to snip even a smidgin of our sympathy. For she is the predominant representative of those prejudiced souls who assume that those whom they describe as physically “deformed” must be also “deformed” in character. However my view that the play represents a send-up of the idiocies of Tudor propaganda is challenged by the sincerity of Paul Eastway’s Richmond (who becomes the first Tudor king, Henry VII). Perhaps this resonant Richmond’s lack of self-sanctimony owed much to the cutting of some of his most florid passages.
The overall surgery is radical. QTC patrons wary of a long night’s journey down a Shakespearean Cloudstreet can breathe a sigh of relief. As with the recent Tempest, even the interval has gone. Mostly the two hours are romped through with nary a dull moment. Rarely a tender moment either, though with Sean O’Shea as Tyrrel, the poetic account of the murder of the Princes in the Tower claims our heart (despite the telegraphing from those two snowy pillows).
Cuts to the original character list cause some actors to be very busy indeed. Robert Meldrum does sterling duty for three clerics, while local lad Paul Denny blithely extends Catesby’s villainy to that of others. Darren Gilshenan scores well in the difficult role of Stanley, caught in a tug-of-war between Richard and Richmond, with his son held hostage by the former.
Robert Alexander’s anguished Edward IV, deprived of his customary deathbed, is a splendidly sinking ship with all distress signals flying. Lucas Stibbard and Morgan David Jones expertly image the artful innocence of youth. Christopher Stollery is a blessedly bland Buckingham and has a wicked way with a wig. David Davies has a wicked way with a bottle, which suits the soon-to-the block Hastings. Damien Ryan doubles a heavily-pressured gaoler with a mincing Mayor who deserves to get the bouquet he is so eager to give.
This isn’t a play where over-the-top is a worry. But I reckon Richard might consider giving his whip the flick. The prayerbook-lifting says it all. Gow and Bell make it clear that the Richard of the play is at heart (though he denies having one) an actor-manager. Even Matt Scott’s abrupt lighting changes, which manage to image some variety in the uniform set, seem variations of Richard’s mannerisms, as do the pulsing music and rumbling sound patterns of Brett Collery and Peter Eades. Assistant director Scott Witt is renowned for his stage fights but with Bosworth Field moved indoors the fights are inevitably somehat “carpeted”.
This bizarre Richard has an internal consistency which transcends the Bell Company’s version of the same play (though it then had Margaret in it, played by Anna Volska) a decade ago. And I think that those who (like yours truly) were dismayed by the Company’s Lear a few years back, will find this lesser play presented more ably than the greater one.