John Haidar’s darkly comic version of this less studied Shakespeare play wowed from the off. Richard III is a tragic rise and fall narrative, where Richard marries and murders his way to the English throne, only to be defeated in battle by Richmond at the play’s end.
We are immediately on side with Richard (Tom Mothersdale) whose devilishly funny monologues and looks to the audience make him hard to hate. The choice to address his soliloquys directly to us, playing with modern notions of the fourth wall that wouldn’t have been present in Elizabethan theatre, make us feel like a part of his plan. Richard often leans against the proscenium arch, firmly placing the audience on his side. His successes are our gains as well as his own. The play is full of black humour, such as Richard emerging in a paper crown that looks like it’s straight out of a Christmas cracker whilst plotting murder, or Richard proposing to an Anne (Leila Mimmack) trembling with rage next to the shrouded corpse of her father’s dead body. We know we shouldn’t be laughing and falling for the humorous charm of a Machiavellian murderer, but we can’t help it. It’s funny, but all the more disturbing for that.
Bits of the Henry VI plays have been added to this version, grounding the narrative in its historical context, making it easy to follow and enjoy. The text of the earlier plays and the character of Henry (John Sackville) himself haunt this production – we cannot forget history’s teleological drive to Richard’s death and the restoration of peace.
The set design is ingenious. A crown is suspended above the centre of the stage for the duration of the first act, gradually being lowered as Richard’s claim to the throne is solidified by his murderous plotting. The back of the stage consists of seven mirrors creating eerie visions where characters appear present on stage multiple times and can be seen from multiple angles at once. The mirrors can be lit from behind to reveal ghostly apparitions of characters behind them (Henry VI beckons his fallen comrades as the actions of the living continue on the main stage), used ingeniously as the ghosts of those murdered haunt a Richard descending into madness.
Often in plays, we can feel that there’s an actor who is a weak link in the chain. That’s not the case in this production. Every character is brilliantly played with an intensity of emotion that allows the play to remain suspenseful and dark despite Mothersdale’s playfulness. The scene where the Duchess of York (Eileen Nicholas) and Elizabeth (Derbhle Crotty) compare their causes for grief was deeply moving, instilling a guilt in me for having been taken in by Richard. I find it hard to fault this production. It was well acted, well designed, well directed and a must-see for the dedicated Shakespeare fan and casual theatre goer alike.