Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Thursday 15th August, 2022
Perhaps more than most plays, Shakespeare’s Richard III depends on the charisma of its leading man, who in this case happens to be the villain of the piece. Through soliloquies and asides, the scheming Duke of Gloucester lets us in on his nefarious plots. Richard needs to be more than a pantomime villain, enjoyable though it is to boo and hiss at those figures. This production boasts a remarkable Richard; we take to him from the off. From the sarcasm of the famous opening speech and along every step of the way as his Machiavellian machinations play out, Arthur Hughes gives us a somewhat Puckish Richard, playfully turning on the histrionics whenever someone needs gaslighting. It’s a joy to watch him at work, especially since most of the other characters are ‘worthy’ beyond stomaching. The quickfire asides and glances through the fourth wall, the lines that drip with dramatic irony, are all deliciously delivered. The wooing of a woman he has widowed is a masterclass in manipulation.
Hughes is supported by a superlative company. In a play where the women have little else to do but grieve and wail, Minnie Gale’s Margaret stands out in a powerfully emotive scene. Kirsty Bushell’s keening cry as the grieving Elizabeth is truly heartrending and has to be heard to be believed. Jamie Wilkes impressed as Richard’s sidekick, the Duke of Buckingham, while Conor Glean and Joeravar Sangha are great fun as a pair of darkly comedic murderers who have been sent to despatch Ben Hall’s sympathetic Duke of Clarence.
Director Gregory Doran keeps the action fast-moving with swift transitions, and the sense of period in augmented by some beautiful treble vocals. The climactic battle scenes are presented in a highly stylised manner using physical theatre and a symbolic staining with blood of the massive cenotaph that has cast its shadow over proceedings. These scenes come hot on the heels of an effective dream sequence where Richard is tormented by those he has killed. The sudden stylistic shift at the tail end of the play is at odds with the rest of the show, making this a production of strong moments but patchy in its overall presentation. The first half is bum-numbingly longer than the second.
Of course, the play has plenty to say to us about the times we live in — especially given recent events: the suitability (or otherwise) of those who rule over us; the gaslighting of the masses by those who abuse their power… Unlike the liars and crooks in power today, Richard does not get off scot-free. Perhaps that’s why we indulge him in his excesses, and perhaps that’s why our sense of morality and our need for a proper story make us hope the wretches in government get their comeuppance.
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆