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Richard III is a Shakespearean classic. It is the story of the rise and fall of a ruthless schemer, charming and beguiling, lethal and cunning. Richard is part of the House of York, victorious over the Lancastrian King Henry VI in the Wars of the Roses. However, Richard wants the crown for himself, and the play is largely the unfolding of his bloody attempt to achieve it. The body count includes his brother Clarence, wife Ann and, of course, the two princes in the tower. He is hideous, ‘unfinished’, 'deformed’ – a belief from Medieval times held that inner malice would be manifested in outer ugliness. Therefore, he is ‘determined to prove a villain’.
Thought to have been written in the early 1590s, Richard III has since been performed many times. Shakespeare’s contemporary Richard Burbage (for whom the part was probably written), David Garrick, Laurence Olivier, Anthony Sher and Ian McKellan are just a few to have announced that ‘Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this sun of York’. In America, James Hewlett played Richard in the 1820s with the African Grove Theater company in New York, Al Pacino went Looking for Richard in 1996, and the character has undergone a modern reincarnation in House of Cards. William Mannering is the latest in a long line of players to bring Richard to the stage, in Lucy-Pitman Wallace’s hugely enjoyable production, witnessed as part of Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre at Blenheim Palace.
Richard has been reimagined many times: from Sher’s ‘bottled spider’ to David Troughton’s Jester to McKellan’s soldier. Here is a playful comic villain, diabolical in a simple red, claret and black costume designed by Adam Nee. Mannering revels in the dark charm of Richard, you miss him when he's not present. This is important, especially in the earlier scenes when it is much easier to feel complicit with Richard’s scheming for the crown. Personally, I find Richard much harder to empathize with following the murder of the princes in the tower. Mannering captures this transition, becoming a raging, angry tyrant as power begins to slip from his grasp.
At first I worried that the decision to present Richard as a comic villain risked limiting the depth of the character on stage. However, by the end of the play he is tortured by nightmares of his many victims bidding him ‘despair and die’. Richard III is a play heavy with dreams and curses. The dream sequence is cleverly directed: instead of a procession of ghosts, there is a disembodied hiss of condemnation, propelling Richard around the stage. Mannering showed us another side to Richard: frightened, vulnerable and even susceptible to remorse.
This Richard is also a surprisingly energetic creature: leaping up and down, defying the constraints of his lame, halting gait. Indeed, this notable aspect of the character is played down in the later scenes, perhaps indicating the (temporary) achievement for Richard of absolute power.
Richard’s victims are remembered by the simple, yet effective, device of hanging their cloaks up around the stage in a haunting momento of his crimes. The staging, perhaps in keeping with Elizabethan tradition, has few props. Costumes are deliberately timeless, mixing vivid with subtle colours, trousers with breaches, cloaks with waistcoats. The instability of the political landscape is neatly illustrated with banners depicting the monarchs who rise to, and fall from, power, ending when Henry Tudor is crowned Henry VII.
It remains a matter of contention whether the historical Richard was as sinister as the character imagined by Shakespeare. The play is, crudely, Tudor propaganda, and it is interesting to speculate what sort of play Shakespeare would have written had the Battle of Bosworth ended differently. We’ll never know, but I suspect that Shakespeare’s Richard would not have been so intriguing, compelling and watchable as he has been down the ages, or as he is in this captivating production.
Richard III is on stage at Shakespeare's Rose Theatre at Blenheim Palace to September 5. Also on stage at Shakespeare's Rose Theatre at Blenheim Palace are Romeo & Juliet to September 6, plus Macbethand A Midsummer Night's Dream to September 7. Another edition of the pop up theatre at York is staging productions of Hamlet, The Tempest, Henry V and Twelfth Night to September 1. For more details, go to www.shakespearesrosetheatre.com.