Sunday, April 9, 2017

Richard 3 - Bell Shakespeare

Review by John Lombard

Clarence (Gareth Reeves), unfortunate younger brother to King Edward IV (Timothy Dashwood), languishes in the tower of London under suspicion of treasonous ambition. 

Confident because of his innocence, Clarence waits for his release, believing his brother Richard (Kate Mulvany) will counsel the King to free him. 

Richard does in fact intend to release Clarence - from life, not prison - and sends a murderer to kill his brother and clear his own path to the crown.

When the murderer confronts Clarence, all of the members of court are poised on the periphery of the scene.  While Richard stares directly at the execution with a fanatic's leer, the rest of the court is deliberately oblivious: Richard can only rise to power because good men do nothing.

Director Peter Evans' new production of Richard 3 is blessed with an outstanding Richard in Kate Mulvany, leaning into her natural scoliosis to present a Richard whose movement is genuinely freakish and unnatural.  When she finally takes the throne, she crumples into it like a bag of bones, looking every bit the "poisonous bunch-backed toad".

Mulvany strikes the right tone for the play, which despite its darkness is in many ways a gleeful romp.  Like the best villains, Richard adores his work, and is justly proud of how much he can get away with.  Can he murder a man and then woo the new widow over the coffin?  Hold his drink and watch him.  As malignant as Richard is, he is both persuasive and resourceful, his eloquent tongue making up for any deformity

Richard is something of a tragic figure, because although he has been "cheated of feature" in body, it does not stop him from securing trust, power, and a beautiful wife.  Like Macbeth, Shakespeare's other's great murderer, there is great potential that is badly squandered on treason and duplicity.  But we can empathise with how Richard is treated like a "dog" at court: the slightly boyish Richard is patronised and even physically petted, affection that Richard mistakes for contempt.  It is credit to Shakespeare's psychology and craft that he can make character assassination of the historical figure so rounded and believable.

For this production a 20s aesthetic is adopted for set and costumes, that well-worn theatrical shorthand for a period of decadence.  The play never strays from the drawing room, and when the scene changes to camp or the battlefield the props of the lounge room are repurposed.  Some Japanese swords that sit conspicuously on a mantle as period flavour are used well in the play's martial climax.  Original music by Steve Toulmin also conspires to create an unsettling atmosphere, and the cast join together sweetly in songs that create a feeling of community.

The cast are sublime, drawing out every drop of psychology and insight in the play, with most actors convincingly embodying multiple roles.  Of particular note is Rose Riley, fresh from a brilliant performance in The Glass Menagerie, who here plays both Lady Anne and the young Prince.  Riley plays Lady Anne's complex changes brilliantly, from outright scorn to tender compassion, an equal match for Mulvany's Richard.

Richard III is often classed as an early Shakespeare, and with good reason.  There is much clunky talk of prophecy in the play, and as each prophecy comes true characters take a moment to stop and wonder at the inexorable working of fate.  After a while it becomes repetitive, especially since such blind acceptance of fate is at odds with Richard's drive and agency. As is often the case with Shakespeare, it is difficult to tell how in earnest he is, whether this is what he really believes or a subtle and arch satire.  The play is also remarkable for its extraordinarily colourful invective, with vivid, toe-curling insults being hurled back and forth throughout the play - the 16th century equivalent of a rap battle.

In Richard 3 Peter Evans and Bell Shakespeare have produced a definitive production of an early Shakespeare that is consistently fascinating, with the inspired casting of Kate Mulvany providing a definitive portrait of the subtle and wrathful Richard.