Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 16th April, 2012
Director Roxana Silbert follows up last season’s very enjoyable Measure For Measure with a Richard III that also brings the comic aspects of the play to the fore.
As the eponymous monarch, Jonjo O’Neill stalks around the stage on a gammy leg, his posture twisted into a stoop, and clad in some natty black leathers. This Richard is the purest Machiavellian. He doesn’t glower and brood in his private moments, only turning on the charm and the spiel for those he wishes to manipulate. Even alone, he doesn’t stop. In his native Belfast accent, O’Neill treats us to a Richard who has not only kissed but snogged the Blarney Stone. With tongues. This charm works on the other characters, whom he plays like a string section, but also on the audience. You can’t help liking him and admiring his gift of the gab. The man is a callous murderer and makes the most audacious claims and offers. And he gets away with it – up to a point. Shakespeare gave the King a makeover that would flatter his Tudor patrons but he cannot bend history to the point that his most affable villain will ride off into the sunset at the end on the horse he cries out for but never gets. When Richard gives battle in vain, he is struck down by a sword stroke to the body and then, in an almost tender moment, has the life throttled from him. It is like putting an animal to sleep.
The stage and the action are dominated by O’Neill. Other characters don’t get much of a look-in. They come and go as suits his machinations. Few show the liveliness of Richard – but then, I suppose, they’re mostly grieving for the loved ones that he murdered.
I loved Paola Dionisotti’s cursing harridan Margaret, rhythmically stamping her foot as she pronounces doom on all and sundry. Richard’s scene with Siobhan Redmond’s Elizabeth Woodville was the highlight for me. There is amiable support from Joshua Jenkins, especially when he’s playing the murderer but on the whole this black comedy is a largely bloodless affair. I think it could afford to tip the scales more towards Grand Guignol to add an extra frisson to the beheadings and garrottings.
The battle scene begins with a stylised march with the obligatory rallying pep-talk but this breaks out into a fast and frantic skirmish, culminating in an exciting sword fight that got people in the front rows flinching. Roxana Silbert pitches the climax of the play just right.
Richard’s mother (Sandra Duncan) is dressed like Margaret Thatcher. I doubt Maggie would share her qualms though. The elvish-mark’d, abortive rooting hog Thatcher’s policies have spawned and unleashed on the country will not meet the same fate. Pity.
With a virtuoso performance from the excellent Jonjo O’Neill, who keeps on the right side of pantomime , this is a very pleasing production that puts you firmly on the side of Shakespeare’s most likeable villain.