The palatial ceiling aloft the shattered plaster and exposed brick walls of the newly restored Alexandra Palace Theatre are aptly suited to Headlong’s powerful production of Shakespeare’s Richard III. The regal calm and restoration of law and order achieved by Edward IV was a delicate flower and with his death the country was once more thrown into turmoil, as Richard, Duke of Gloucester, butchers his way to the throne of England and the fatal battle that would finally end the Wars of the Roses.
A historically entrenched yet vibrantly modern production.
History has undoubtedly done King Richard some disservice, for it is written by the victors and Shakespeare, being in their pay and in need of their favour, conformed to the popular view of him. In the period before, and then during, the two tumultuous years of his reign, and with consummate ease, this ‘deformed, unfinish'd’ usurper pursues his determination ‘to prove a villain’. As he does so neither parents nor children, family nor friends, young nor old, male nor female can count themselves as safe. Director John Haidar with Tom Mothersdale in the title role make no attempt to change the traditional perception of the Bard’s grotesque creation. On the contrary, this production revels in providing justification for the barking of dogs.
There is none of Iago’s motiveless malignity here; Richard wears his heart upon his sleeve and in Motherdale’s often humorous portrayal he sucks us into his plots, rationalises his actions and makes his behaviour appear quite reasonable. He possesses the dangerous affability of the court jester who is actually a serial killer. Ironically, the most chilling speech comes not from his curled lips but from the straight talking mouth of his mother, the Duchess of York. Eileen Nicholas, always commanding and ever-protective of the rest of the family, finally lambasts him for the horrors he has wrought and the suffering he has inflicted. She curses his crusade and vows never to speak to him again. Joining her in these recriminations Derbhle Crotty admirably portrays the stoicism and tortured grief of Queen Elizabeth. Inevitably he brushes them both off. Not so with the Duke of Buckingham. Stefan Adegbola is calmly complicit in Richard’s nefarious deeds until he too can take no more and defects, yet retains his commanding dignity even as he faces death.
Chiara Stephenson has created a suitably dark set with revolving gothic mirrored and transparent doors, used to haunting effect, with matching costumes. Elliot Griggs shatters the gloom with bursts of steel and red lights that enhance the action and text.
There are issues with the venue, however. Richard interacts intimately with the audience in revealing his machinations. While this works for people on the unraked seats of the front stalls, to whom much is directed, it leaves others in the theatre’s cavernous space out in the cold. The end of row C in the circle, from where I watched the first half of the performance, is a long way from the action and the acoustics are hollow. Moving to centre stalls after the interval afforded and far more rewarding experience for what anyway is a more gripping half.
Richard’s ‘piteous and unpitied end’ comes in the mud of Bosworth Field in a build up of stunning scenes that exemplify Headlong’s creativity and imagination and Mothersdale’s intense physicality. This is a historically entrenched yet vibrantly modern production.