Creative staging, live music, actors who seem to live their characters and good background info in the program make Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble’s Richard III a wonderful look into the psychology of lies and brutal power politics, wrapped up by one of history’s greatest flatterers into a morality tale serving the interests of his current masters.
The play is staged at the amphitheatre at the Roma Street Parklands. Instead of the audience sitting on the amphitheatre seats, rows of chairs are placed on what is usually the back of the stage. This means the actors are on the same level as the audience, and the action is right up close; you can lean in and almost be a part of the conversations. The sparse stage begins with only a table on the left and a throne on the right, and battlements at the back.
As the audience enters, a violinist plays vaguely folky-pop tunes on the far right of the stage. Other live music during the play is provided by two guitars, drums and a keyboard. The music was very effective. At the opening of the play, the entire cast enters and walks around the stage singing Shakespeare’s sonnet “My Mistress’ Eyes”, and in the murder scenes the tension is raised by a slow drum beat, increasing its speed as the moment of mortal danger approaches.
Pensalfini did not overplay the grotesque looks Shakespeare claimed the title character posessed, rather playing him with his left arm tucked behind his back to represent its withered state, and walking with a limp. He plays to the audience beautifully, barely a metre away at times as he confides his true nature after successfully fooling other characters. I laughed out loud as Richard was discovered pretending to be at prayer so he would seem like someone who should be crowned King. He stands between two priests with a grin on his face like a cat who has been at the cream. As his ally Buckingham (Ben Prindable) pretends to beg him to take the throne for the good of the country, Richards fake innocence and surprise are delightful to watch.
Rhys Ward plays a smug and self-assured Catesby, dripping contempt for the other characters with subtle expressions, while Louise Brehmer as Queen Elizabeth is convincing as the middle-class woman on the rise whose new position is devastated by the deadly twists and turns of a mediaeval palace. All these three have clearly not just memorised their lines, but entered the hearts of their characters, so that the meaning of the potentially confusing and archaic language is perfectly clear as they snarl at each other and manoeuvre for position and advantage. Jane Cameron as Queen Margaret and Walter Sofronoff as both King Edward IV and James Tyrell also stood out with superb performances.
The guide to the characters in the program is extremely useful. There are as many characters as a modern soap opera, and their reasons for hating each other are just as varied and complex. The brief historical background to each character lets you understand who is allied to whom, who has wronged each other in the past and why. As I have never seen the play before, and don’t know the history of the Wars of the Roses very well, I was constantly checking the guide to help me keep the story straight.
Of course, Shakespeare’s version of the rise and fall of Richard III has about as much resemblance to reality as, say, a book about a modern prime minister written by his lover. But even given that Shakespeare was serving the interests of the Tudor dynasty by defaming the king whom the first Tudor had deposed, this production bursts with life, death, power and ambition. An excellent job by the cast and director Tom McSweeny.
Richard III is at the Roma Street Parklands Amphitheatre until October 31.