Following Michael Boyd’s magnificent Henry VI trilogy, the next instalment in the history cycle is something of a disappointment. Richard III, now playing at the Courtyard Theatre, sadly lacks the inventiveness and theatrical brilliance of the earlier productions.
Dressed in drab modern costumes, actors who appeared to be giants in the trilogy are here puny and unimpressive. At the centre of the piece, Jonathan Slinger all but chews the scenery and spits out the text in pieces, in a performance that increasingly resembles Rik Mayall in The Young Ones. While there are one or two examples of him turning the verse into cleverly thrown away asides, for the most part he mangles his words and the manic posturing doesn’t add much to an already colourful character.
Katy Stephens, however, as old Queen Margaret dominates the stage whenever she appears and her early scene, when she curses the fractious court, is highly atmospheric as she lays out the bones of her son which she’s been carrying around in a bundle during her exile. Equally effective is the execution of Rivers, Grey and Dorset, a shocking and theatrical moment. The stage lights up briefly at Richard’s coronation, when the ghosts of Warwick and Henry VI appear and we are reminded of the theatricality that pervades Boyd’s direction of the trilogy. Also on the plus side, Richard Cordery gives a solid and believable performance as high-reaching Buckingham, subtly raising more smiles for me than Slinger’s more overt attempts.
A note in the programme helps us understand why the production team have decided to update the play, in contrast to the more traditional staging of the Henry VI plays. It represents the complete break that Richard’s reign heralds, following the conclusion to the bloody civil wars. It’s a valid approach and an eclectic view of the Histories is perfectly acceptable, although, for me, parts of this production don’t avoid being gimmicky.
If Boyd and his ensemble are going to retain our interest throughout the whole cycle of eight plays they are producing over the next year or so, they have to avoid complacency. The overall look and feel of this Richard III is a bit bland and unmemorable and it begins to become tedious as the long evening progresses.
I very much wanted to like this production having awaited it keenly but found that the inspiration seemed to have run out. I hope they will be back on form for the Henry IV plays later in the year.