Scarce half made up: Richard III at the Arcola Theatre

Saturday 13th May 2017, matinée

We didn’t have to think much about booking to see Greg Hicks playing Richard III at the Arcola.  He is a master of all that is dark and brooding, as his stunning solo performance in the Kreutzer Sonata revealed recently, and this is a play we hadn’t yet seen on stage.  We were hoping for a fresh take on an undoubted classic.

We have to wonder if Richard III would even get an airing if it wasn’t Shakespeare given its dubious sensibilities, and superstitious belief that physical deformities are a sign of the devil’s work.  Having said that Mat Fraser, who is currently playing the part in Hull, has said how liberating it is as a disabled actor to play a character who is pure evil – there is certainly a refreshing lack of political correctness here.

Then we wonder if, given the recent discovery of Richard III’s skeleton, which confirms his scoliosis but also suggests that it would have been easy to disguise, might inspire some different interpretations, and in particular the question, what if his physical deformity was not externalised at all, but had its effects felt through Richard’s psychology and the way that others viewed him?  And why are we wondering this? Well, the actor and director have to decide how to present Richard’s rather vaguely described physicality, and the avoidance of cliché must be a consideration.  Hicks and Ergen get ten out of ten for boldness, but unfortunately they have chosen such as bizarre setup that it becomes distracting in an unhelpful way.  Hicks has one arm completely immobilised and a chain attached to his foot which he occasionally uses to manoeuvre his leg around.  If the intention is to leave us in no doubt that Richard doesn’t quite fit in, it is achieved, but there are problems with an arrangement which looks physically unfeasible.  It feels as if the choice was made entirely to create a grotesque image.  The other important factor is whether we can believe in Richard as a warrior (which history tells us he most certainly was).  Modern versions can always solve this by making him a commander rather than a soldier, but in this version, although it is clearly updated, we still have a medieval pitched battle at the end and a knife fight which is incongruous to say the least.  It seems particularly ironic that in the play, Shakespeare goes out of his way to weaken Richard psychologically before the battle with lack of sleep and the relentless hauntings of those he has killed, and he never tries to suggest that Richard cannot handle himself in a fight. ‘Deformity’ is not the same as ‘disability’.  We think an actor of Hicks’ calibre, so famed for the physicality of his acting, could have done something more convincing without compromising the text, and really let us in to the psychological exploration of Richard.

The play itself, whilst understandably popular with actors, and the source of an iconic dramatic creation and some of the most famous lines of Shakespeare, doesn’t feel like one of his best dramatic works.  But in this production it could have been improved by a bit more pace, energy and imagination.  The play telescopes around 12 years of history into just under 3 hours, and sometimes it feels like it.  We also found some of the updating inconsistent and patchy, and not really serving the action.

At the end of the day, we wouldn’t have wanted to miss the opportunity of seeing Greg Hicks play one of the great villains, and he oozes evil and bitterness out of every pore. Peter Guinness excels at portraying another kind of evil, the opportunist who thinks he can control and use Richard for gain until he makes the mistake of showing a glimpse of humanity.  Paul Kemp doubles up nicely, first as the hapless and trusting George, Richard’s first victim, and secondly as his nemesis Lord Stanley, whose mask of cheerful dependability works very well for him.  Jane Bertish makes the most of her role as Queen Margaret, a character who technically wouldn’t have been at court at that time, but is placed there by Shakespeare to pour scorn over Richard and bring down curses on all those who have wronged her.  Of all the characters, she seems to have found peace in accepting the inevitable, making her an authoritative voice of doom.

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