Richard III by William Shakespeare – Sam Wanamaker Theatre, London
Seeing Richard III the night after the Globe’s Henry VI is quite a contrast. While the valiant efforts of Sean Holmes and Ilinca Radulian to wrangle two parts of the Henry VI saga into one evening do not entirely succeed, their production of Richard III is irreverent and full of ensemble energy. The play is better than the Henrys – more coherent and focused, with a towering, magnetic figure in the legendarily evil king. Legend is indeed what this is – the portrayal of Richard a shameless Tudor propaganda exercise – and this production gleefully presents the play as grotesque caricature, Sophie Russell’s Richard bounding from one unbelievable act to the next, daring the audience to follow. Russell comes into her own with a thoroughly watchable yet nuanced performance exploring Richard’s many moods, from honeyed dissembler to brutal dictator.
The eclectic mix of costumes, colour-coded to indicate York or Lancaster, is continued from Henry VI but less as a device to keep track of events and more part of the deep black comedy that drives the show. When Clarence is murdered, with excruciating delay, his two killers strip to reveal shirts marked ‘Murderer 01’ and ‘Murderer 02’. Richard himself adorns his body with fashions – all-white outfits – which become increasingly outré as he appears at the scene of the many killings he orders, crooning Kris Kristofferson’s ‘For The Good Times’, as a cowboy and as Elvis (shades of Rupert Goold’s influential 2000s Vegas Merchant of Venice at Stratford). The deaths themselves are hilariously awful – Clarence is stabbed to death at great length with a pair of scissors, others suffocated with plastic bags or smothered in the thick earth blanketing the stage. Later, the only way to deal with the body count is to cover the entire stage and back wall in plastic sheeting.
Sophie Russell is excellent, but this by no means a one-woman show. Steffan Donnelly reprises his unnerving Queen Margaret from Henry VI, this time lurching around with a shopping bag full of body parts. Jonathan Broadbent’s Buckingham, a bureaucrat swept off his feet by Richard, is both amusing and dark, as he realises much too late what he has done. The horror of Colin Hurley’s Hastings is all apparent as he is comprehensively outmanoeuvred. Sarah Amankwah is both a fearful, petulant Edward IV and an all-seeing Duchess of Gloucester. Philip Arditti and Donnelly pull off a hilarious double act as the two numbered murderers. Murderer-in-chief, though, is John Lightbody whose Sir Richard Ratcliff, who lurks in the shadows, carrying his bag of tools and wearing an oddly sinister, too-tight velvet suit – both funny and very nasty, and an interesting contrast with his reflective Clarence. The cast cover multiple roles, which is cleverly used at the end when Lightbody and Matti Houghton transform from Richard’s henchmen back to their previous roles as his murdered brother and wife.
The Globe’s Shakespeare history cycle goes out with a bang, as the eclectic production style comes together to deliver a Richard III that succeeds in delivering maximum entertainment, a production full of ideas and clever touches and a set of performances that hold the audience rapt for two and half hours.