The RSC’s monumental undertaking to perform the full cycle of Shakespeare’s history plays with an ensemble cast continues with Richard III. Here, the term ‘history play’ lacks truthfulness: it’s a shameless piece of Tudor propaganda – and a roaring good tale.
Richard of Gloucester, limping on an ugly leg-brace and cradling a withered hand, can’t bear to see England at peace under his brother Edward’s reign. Supremely gifted at dissembling and manipulation and entirely untroubled by conscience, he sets about removing every obstacle to the throne. He murders his brother Clarence, then contrives to throw the guilt at the ailing king, speeding his death and ensuring his own position as Lord Protector, casting a baleful shadow over the young princes. There follows a bloodbath, as the factions – and factions-within-factions – scrabble for power, and Richard paws at the throne.
Jonathan Slinger has the rare courage to play Richard with not the slightest suggestion of villainous sexiness – he’s a loathsome bully, energetic as a nasty child hopped-up on Tango and a colossal creep. His delivery, carried on astonishing trajectories of spit, resists the demands of iambic pentameter and never seems less than immediate: indeed, it’s punctuated at least once by extempore swearing. I’ve been often moved to pity the hunchback king, and will admit to having found his horrid courtship of Anne, whose husband he murdered, darkly erotic. Such a response would be impossible here: it’s like watching a toad creep across a sleeping face. Even his terror the night before the final battle is made absurd by the inchoate childishness of his rage, and by a perfectly monstrous pair of underpants.
The cast is of uneven quality. Anne is gifted with some of literature’s most achingly rage-fuelled lines (“Cursed be the hand that made these fatal holes! Cursed be the heart that had the heart to do it!”), but Hannah Barrie lacks the range or gravity for the role, and it was rather like watching a seventeen-year-old lose her iPod. I’ve said this before, and will continue to say it until someone takes note: whoever teaches young actresses that to ‘do’ Shakespeare they must deliver each line on a gust of earnest breath wants thumping.
Richard Cordery’s Buckingham is splendidly unpleasant, and James Tucker beautifully conveys Clarence’s trembling piety. As the exiled widow Margaret, Katy Stephens galvanised the audience whenever she took to the stage: her eyes glittered with something like madness, and when she called down curses on the man who murdered her son I half-thought the Furies would appear at her shoulder.
The staging is conventionally moderno-Shakespeare: the Tower’s a rusting iron edifice crying out for a faux-Banksy, and the cast dress not unlike Withnail. It largely succeeds, lending the timeless atmosphere the play deserves, and allows one or two clever conceits: when Richard demands evidence of the princes’ death, he’s offered a picture on a mobile phone.
As to the play itself, what can I say that hasn’t been said? It’s a masterly demonstration of theatre’s transporting properties: violent, heart-breaking, absurd, moving and bleakly funny. There’s not a moment’s peace: doomed Clarence waking in the Tower to tell his jailor of his nightmares is pitiful beyond bearing; then in come his grimly comic executioners and you’ll get coaxed from you a reluctant grin.
This, then, is no faultless production. But folks: it’s Shakespeare, and can only be an altogether enlarging experience. He’ll snatch out your soul, horrify it and whisper to it; delight, repulse and thrill it, and put it back just a little bit bigger than it was before.