With Richard III, Antic Disposition has produced another signal triumph in what is quite simply the best production of this particular play to come into town in many a year. Take every opportunity to catch it while you can.
Antic Disposition have honed the historical contextualization of Shakespeare to a fine art. After a remarkable tour of Henry V last year, they have done the same in 2017 with Richard III, taking in a series of venues in France, and a selection of English Cathedrals (including Leicester, Richard’s final resting place). In each location there is a special and particular resonance between the play and the players. This is no less true of their final stop, the Temple Church, which has a fine natural acoustic and is right next to the garden where, if you believe the Shakespeare of Henry VI, the red and white roses were first plucked in anger and the Wars of the Roses began. To bring here the play that concludes those wars could hardly be more apt.
A quite unreasonable fuss was made about the visit to Leicester Cathedral. Both the texture of the production and the text of the programme make it clear that so far from using Shakespearean Tudor mythology to denigrate the historical Richard, the company seeks to demarcate clearly the scope of both fact and myth. Indeed they go further to suggest that contemporary audiences would have appreciated that the real political target for this play was in fact Robert Cecil, Elizabeth’s last leading minister – ‘a slight, crooked hump-backed young gentleman, dwarfish in stature.’ So far from over-simplifying, this production aims to add extra layers of understanding.
This is hardly a play that lacks outings, yet this production is still one that no enthusiast for Shakespeare should miss. There is a consistent and imaginative attention to the text and to the dynamics of characterization, which re-thinks and presents anew what is often thought familiar. There may be few props, but this serves as a good discipline, forcing the actors back onto their own resources.
And those that are used, such as Richard’s sword, are worked hard. There is a lovely moment, for instance, when on the line ‘I’ll be at charges for a looking glass’, he stops to examine himself in the polished blade of the weapon. This is just one of so many delicate interventions that are a signature of this company’s fresh engagement with the text and determination to mint it as new.
Set on a traverse stage between the pews in the main body of the church, the action is pacey and deftly coordinated. With the lighting rigs placed at either end of the stage, the rest of the church is plunged into darkness so that there is plenty of scope for the actors to get into position, change role and costume, and still keep momentum going. The central catwalk leaves little scope for scenery, but we don’t need much more than the representation of a coffin, table or throne. The text throws a rich brocade over the rest, when it is delivered as searchingly and feelingly as it is here.
Modern-dress costumes prevail suggesting an appropriately sulphurous, conspiratorial House of Cards milieu; and splashes of colour and ceremony are introduced as needed, not least by getting the audience involved in a little literal flag-waving. Composer James Burrows has put together an atmospheric score to provide both interlude and underscore, a combination of acoustic keening, sonorous organ, and a genuinely medieval sound world, that offers fine moody support to the players, topped up with touches of pageantry.
The directors deserve credit for following their ideas through. Too often in contemporary Shakespearean productions, ideas are introduced and then prodigally discarded or forgotten. Here, they are knitted through the fabric. For instance, great use is made of the ghosts of the dead, gradually accumulating under a blueish spotlight at one end of the stage. This is not simply or mainly an index of the rising body count. Instead it is an idea that comes into its own during the eve of battle dream when the ghosts gather again to man-handle Richard’s faltering grip on sanity.
Too often this play either has a great central performance with inadequate supporting casting (eg the recent Almeida production), or vice versa. The great strength of this production is the balance it has in both. With some ingenious doubling up of roles there are really no weak links here, with the tiny cavil that both Queen Elizabeth and the Lady Anne could be more vocally varied and feisty in the crucial verbal jousts with Richard.
Otherwise, the acting is of rare verve and consistency. The particular quality of Toby Manley’s Richard is the layering of his performance, which starts off full of low-key, insinuating, but creepy charm, and gradually grows into a full palette of cruelty, cynical wit, raw courage and carefully calculated viciousness. Again it is a tribute to the fine ensemble playing that much of that cruelty stems from Manley’s representation of Richard’s uncanny understanding of the neediness of the other characters, as refracted through his own sense of primal hurt.
One should also pay tribute to the physical discipline of maintaining a fully twisted leg through the two hour-running time!
Among the other players several stand out. The play opens with Queen Margaret lamenting over the draped coffin of her son. Louise Templeton, in battered battle fatigues, thereafter wanders in and out of the action, in real time and outside of it, offering a choric commentary less manic but more sarcastic and rueful than usual. Every word is made to count in a role that – incredibly – is still quite often cut. Joe Eyre’s Buckingham creates a bromance with Manley’s Richard that describes a beautiful arc of imagined friendship between two masterly self-publicists, the one ultimately outlasting and outbidding the other. Eyre is smarmy and slick when on the make, and then shrivels memorably when he fails in the take.
Though the role of Clarence is over and done with early on, William de Coverly gave it full and impressive measure. His account of Clarence’s dream anticipating his drowning painted the phantasmagoric picture for us in new verbal colours, and his desperate pleas to his murderers also had rare persuasive force and poignancy. This was perhaps the best verse-speaking of the evening. His contribution was then capped by a very different, and menacing, turn later on as the murderer, Tyrrell.
Alex Hooper did all that could be expected with Richmond and Rivers, and Robert Nairne was a notably sinister Catesby, the archetypal necessary man for whichever regime happens to be in power. Paradoxically, Jess Nesling and Bryony Tebbutt seemed more liberated in acting out the young Princes than the two queens, and Jill Stanford gave full weight to the Duchess of York’s denunciation of her son in the later stages, as well as the cameo role of the Bishop of Ely.
It was refreshing that everyone involved found a lot of humour in their parts. Usually only Richard’s sarcasm counts as comedy. Yet here we had some lovely business with toys to greet the return of the young princes to London, a mayor of London (Charles Neville) with a bumbling manner and a blond fright wig, and plenty of moments of friendly joshing between the council members. Here the proximity of the audience helped. There were two sides of gallery to play to and we were close enough to capture every wink and aside.
The evening skipped past, as it rarely does. This company has produced another signal triumph in what is quite simply the best production of this particular play to come into town in many a year. Take every opportunity to catch it while you can.