Richard III (RSC) @ The Royal Shakespeare Theatre

At the end of Gregory Doran’s Richard III, the conclusion to the RSC’s latest stab at the first tetralogy, the enormous tower that stood as backdrop to Stephen Brimson Lewis’s set was revealed to be a monument. As Nicholas Armfield’s Richmond announced the joining of the white and red roses, a wreath made up of the two kinds of flower was brought out, which he laid at the monument’s base, retrospectively casting this structure (whose function and purpose had been disappointingly unclear for the preceding three hours) as a memorial for the victims of war. But given the production was so disconnected from the rest of its cycle, and that it showed little interest in victims or even war for most of its running time, this closing act of memorialisation might be better understood as an acknowledgement of the production’s own troubled circumstances, and of what might have been.

The plan to stage the three parts of Henry VI and Richard III, with Doran working in tandem with Owen Horsley, was derailed first by the pandemic and then by the sad loss of Doran’s husband, Antony Sher. As a result, this has been a disrupted cycle. 1 Henry VI was reimagined as a rehearsal production (albeit an excellent one) streamed for online audience, while Horsley took over directing duties for Part 2 (itself a fragmented production, with its rotating cast of amateur companies joining different performances) and Part 3. For Richard III, though, Horsley exited the project, and Doran took the reins to direct a stand-alone production, with some continuities – the spartan metallic aesthetic of Brimson Lewis’s design, the sporadic use of on-stage camerawork – but a sensibility all of its own.

The most bizarre part of the semi-connected nature of the production to its predecessors was in the casting. Arthur Hughes returned to complete his arc as Richard of Gloucester, alongside Ashley D Gayle and Ben Hall as his brothers Edward and Clarence respectively. And the two constants of the whole tetralogy, Minnie Gale’s Margaret and Mark Quartley’s Henry VI (the latter only in pre-recorded video), offered continuity. But the replacement of most of the rest of the ensemble felt bizarre. The replacement of excellent actors of colour in several key roles was particularly disappointing: Richmond (Nicholas Armfield as the traditionally handsome young white male hero in place of Felixe Forde), Elizabeth (Kirsty Bushell for Yasmin Taheri) and Buckingham (Jamie Wilkes for Daniel Ward) all began brand new arcs here, along with several other roles (the production did in fairness also bring on some new Black actors, though in tiny roles such as the Duchess of York and the Scrivener). But it created (for me, at least) a disjointed, fragmented feeling, leaving confused the question of whether this production was indeed completing an existing story or trying to tell a new one.

In the event, it did neither. I have no insight into the rehearsal process, but this felt like a production created in parts rather than one which had a coherent story to tell about Richard III. Stylistically and spatially, nothing remained consistent. In the final act, Richmond and Richard suddenly delivered addresses to their troops direct to handheld cameras, introducing video projection for the production’s final moments in a way that jarred with the far more traditional, analogue modes of appealing to the public used earlier in the production. Similarly, the sudden switch to abstract movement work for the ghosts at least had an in-text justification – why mightn’t the ghosts come from an entirely different theatrical aesthetic to the living? – and was a welcome introduction of visual interest as the ghosts swished their shrouds, stumbled and jerked like The Walking Dead‘s zombies, and surrounded and terrified Richard, before stumbling to watch from the background as Richard met his end in a similarly abstract way. But it rather felt as if an entirely different director had stepped in to finish the production off.

This didn’t mean that there weren’t interesting choices made throughout, just that these choices didn’t all cohere. Rosie Sheehy, for instance, was excellent as a strong-willed Anne, who raised Richard’s sword twice to drive it down into his chest, forcing him to get his ‘But it’s your fault I did these things’ retorts out as fast as possible to manage his manipulation of her. While the actors didn’t quite manage to explain Anne’s capitulation to Richard – the cutting of ‘To take is not to give’ and the long pause as she waited for him to put the ring on her finger seemed rather more compliant than her performance up to that point had prepared for – Anne made a strong impression as a sparring partner and independent spirit. But her two further appearances were so perfunctory and unremarkable that her subsequent prominence at the head of the ghastly parade of ghosts seemed unearned.

Similarly, Bushell was a fantastic choice for Queen Elizabeth: a dignified, no-nonsense, formidable woman with a line in snark and side-eye to match Richard’s own. Her height alone allowed her to dominate scenes, and she was repeatedly drawn to central positions on the stage that gave the impression of Richard picking off her allies from the sidelines, leaving her increasing isolated. She was supported by Claire Benedict as the Duchess of York, the infrequency of whose appearances gave more weight to her forceful, freighted pronouncements about Richard’s childhood. Bushell carried much of the play’s emotional weight as she responded to the incremental loss of her family members, her sarcasm and suspicion gradually giving way to more earnest grief. But in her final major scene, the character’s coherence suddenly evaporated. Faced with Richard’s demand to marry her daughter, Elizabeth suddenly switched from grief to ironic detachment, raising her eyebrows at the audience as she responded to Richard, engaging in the rhetorical play, and even concluding by grabbing him for a hard kiss on his lips. Taken as a stand-alone scene, the lines support this detached reading, and Elizabeth’s kiss certainly seemed to shake Richard momentarily. But the relationship of this to the overwhelming grief depicted moments earlier was too difficult to follow as an emotional arc.

At the centre of everything was Hughes as Richard. The production was heavily marketed with images of Hughes and with interviews about the importance of him being the first disabled actor to play Richard at the RSC (a statement, as with so many of the company’s similar announcements, that feels more like a self-own on the part of the RSC as they linger behind other companies than a marker of progress). And the importance of having a disabled actor play a disabled character was clear throughout: Richard’s story is not about his disability. Indeed, in a lovely moment during the strawberries scene, Richard claimed that Jane Shore (who appeared onstage as a character played by Eloise Secker in this production, though not to much effect) had withered his arm, but it was his not his foreshortened right arm he stripped and held up for the evaluation of the assembled nobles, but his fully grown left arm. The attribution of abnormality to what would usually be constructed as ‘normal’ made the machination explicit, and as the nobles all jumped up from the table to follow him out, it was clear that all knew exactly what was happening.

Hughes’s performance was much less interesting than his Richard in The Wars of the Roses, though. There, Richard’s lingering around the edges of the battlefield, his physical competency, and his sudden transformation in his soliloquies, all made him an unpredictable and endlessly fascinating figure. Here, the performance was serviceable and struck a safe middle ground. He was funny in his muttered asides, without ever playing for big laughs; he was scary in his sudden moments of violence (raising his knife to strike the young Duke of York, before recovering himself and handing the knife as a present to the boy), but never consistently terrifying. In many ways, Hughes was at his best in the scenes which required Richard to be off his game, as during his distracted responses to the reports coming in, or in his suicidal sobbing after the vision of the ghosts. It’s interesting that, at least on the evidence of this production, a competent Richard can be quite a dull one. His Richard was believably good at keeping himself in the background, at saying the right thing at the right time, at doing just enough to keep everything ticking along, without the need for scenery-chewing. But especially given the weaknesses elsewhere in the production, Hughes’s performance didn’t feel big enough in itself to join the disparate parts together.

The real pleasures, as so often in Doran’s productions, came in bit parts. Joeravar Sangha and (especially) Conor Glean as the murderers were a highlight, a proper comic double act, with Glean’s hesitant Second Murderer going back and forth on his word and Sangha gradually losing patience as he explained some of the basic tenets of evildoing. The reveal that the two of them were the hooded monks accompanying Richard during his false praying scene was the occasion of the production’s best laughter. Another wonderful scene was played in absolute darkness as Catesby (a quietly menacing Matthew Duckett, walking with a cane) visited the home of Hastings (Micah Balfour) and Jane Shore. The roving handheld torches that tried to pick out comings and goings were no match for Catesby, whose ability to suddenly appear as if out of nowhere was referenced a couple of times, and the visual variety afforded by this scene was a welcome reprieve from the relatively uniform choices elsewhere.

The other standout was Gale’s Margaret. While her appearance and performance was, again, somewhat at odds with the production’s overall aesthetic, this at least fitted with a character who is defined by unwelcome intrusion. With hair falling about her face, a startlingly red dress, and a pronounced limp, the discombobulated Margaret offered the scenery-chewing that the production really needed. She was bowed down by grief and rage, snarling her curses and clawing desperately at Buckingham in hope of an ally. Her appearances were amplified, including a cameo as Buckingham remembered Margaret’s curses. She was also connected to the monument that was revealed as a memorial, which at times was bathed in red that matched her dress. Margaret’s function in remembering what had been forgotten, which was perhaps deliberately, perhaps inadvertently heightened by Gale’s role as the only actor recurring across all four productions, felt like the strongest conceptual thread of the show.

The production ended with a whimper; following a striking image of Richard riding the bodies of the ghosts who became his ‘horse’ and who abandoned him, turning against him and leaving him flailing wildly at shadows, there was no final fight. The moment of Richard’s death was marked in an abstract way, and the ghosts of the two Princes walked him offstage, leaving the stage clear for the impossibly clean-cut Richmond to enact his public reconciliation of the Lancasters and the Yorks. In this way, the RSC’s latest history cycle has itself ended on a quiet note, functionally completing the story, without ever perhaps being fully aware of what that story was.

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