Among the repertory of Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre, York, this summer, is ‘Richard III‘, and what better place to perform this play than in a car park, “made glorious summer by this sun of York”? One of Shakespeare’s history plays, the work explores the rapid rise, and even swifter fall, of Richard, Duke of Gloucester who will, all too briefly, rule as King of England.
Although a historical piece, the play has been catapulted into the present day by director Lindsay Posner, and could well be concerned with one of today’s leaders – so familiar does it seem. Although faithful to Shakespeare’s original text, the now modern setting ensures this piece resonates with audiences even more so than is usual, allowing the audience to connect more deeply with unfolding events, that are not unlike those we see today.
A forceful, high-powered, charismatic production, ‘Richard III’ presents its audiences with the disturbing psychological portrait of a man whose ruthless ambition means that he will do just about anything for the crown, including doing away with members of his own family.
It certainly is a bold move to reset this play in modern times. Being a history play, it is predominantly concerned with a certain event, that happened during a specific time, hundreds of years ago, its characters figures, shadows, of our past. However, even without those details, the themes of Shakespeare’s text are so relevant, so encompassing, as to work in any setting, and the production takes full advantage of the fact, presenting the action in such a way as to make it something that could easily be happening in our present, the play one that could have been written yesterday.
The play typically begins with the famous opening monologue from eponymous character, Richard, alone on stage. However here, prior to his speech, the entire ensemble, suited and booted, swarms the stage, dancing to Dexys Midnight Runners’ ‘Come On Eileen’. This seems almost incongruous for a play of this solemnity. However, whilst hugely entertaining, it’s also an interesting choice of opening, and it means that, when the group disperses, and Richard is alone on stage, the tone changes, the atmosphere completely shifts, becoming something much darker, much more serious, and this will remain the case for the entire production. Such an opening, which could not be further from traditional starts to performances of this play, is so outlandish, so unexpected, and yet, perhaps such a party spirit represents the contentment, the serenity, of people during times of national peace and political stability, the following marked change in tone representative of a nation’s descent into troubled times, times of hostility, of warfare, and of homicide.
Dyfan Dwyfor is a breathtaking Richard, his presence striking, his charisma monumental. A schemer, a villain, some might even say a psychopath, Dwyfor’s Richard is the very personification of ruthless, blood-thirsty ambition. This is a man who will do anything to achieve his own ends.
In terms of appearance, Dwyfor wore a leg brace on his left leg, with a notable hunch on his back. He leans over to one side, and his left arm hangs lifelessly at his side for the entirety of the production, made to look pale, as though from lack of circulation, a subtle attention to detail. In no way a natural position, Dwyfor maintains such an appearance throughout, his performance not breaking once, so painstakingly consistent and, whether to alleviate pain, or just out of sheer restlessness, the character did not, for one moment, stand still. The character’s appearance alone gives him a great sense of individualism and, an outcast, marks him out, sets him apart, a fact intensified by his speech, and his actions. Although it has been proved that Richard did suffer from curvature of the spine, no evidence has been found to support a hunch, or a withered arm. It is possible, therefore, that Shakespeare embellished this in order that his outward appearance might provide a physical manifestation of his monstrous villainy.
From the first line of his opening speech, Dwyfor immediately connects with his audience, giving us such a powerful sense of character, masterfully setting the tone for the rest of the play. The actor also showed a cheeky awareness, an acknowledgement, of the location of the theatre, under the sun of York, which delighted the audience, his flattery, albeit empty, and aptitude for smooth talking, his ability to play to the masses, notable from the off.
Dwyfor’s Richard interacts so regularly, and so honestly, with the audience during the production, frequently hovering at the front of the stage, looking out, as though we ourselves are among his supporters. During these moments, when he allows us to become privy to even his darkest plans, we have to wonder whether we become complicit in his villainy, co-conspirators. In fact, the audience are the only people he can rely on to confide in, without having to mask his true intentions and, in no position to subvert his plot, to prevent him going after what he wants, we are forced, almost, to listen, and to tolerate, unable to act. Inadvertently, and completely without realising, there is the danger that we too, like so many of the play’s characters, allow ourselves to be drawn in by him. His words not only manipulate how we see him, but also have a bearing on how we begin to see other characters, and there is a danger that we too may move to his way of thinking, sharing his views of other characters, seeing them as threats to what are now our plans. Given that he has shared them with us, and only us, they become, whether we will or no, our plans, the audience aware of them, burdened with them, now on the same level as Richard.
Be it positive or negative, Dwyfor’s Richard certainly establishes some manner of connection with his audience, and we ARE very much his audience – it’s quite possible that he manipulates the feelings of us, as much as he does those of the other characters. We may not agree, but perhaps we begin to understand, his plans? Do we too, then, become pawns in his game? Does he make us question who the protagonist of the piece is, who the antagonist? Do we, even briefly, let our guard down? Although the sure villain of the piece, Dwyfor quite possibly causes our loyalties to shift, so skilled is his performance, so powerful his ability to manipulate, so unexpected yet welcome his dry humour and wit. As with tyrants throughout history, who play on people’s needs, people’s vulnerabilities, there have always been, and there always will be, people who support them, and we can see why characters, why audience members, might be drawn in by Dwyfor’s Richard. However, when his plans materialise, we are horrified, and suitably so. Perhaps we even regret allowing our guard to drop. Letting him in.
Towards the start of the play, Richard attempts to woo Alexandra Dowling’s Lady Anne Neville, widow of Lancastrian Edward, Prince of Wales. The two enter into a verbal exchange, bitter on Anne’s part, much hostility emanating from her, her voice raised and harsh, not afraid to tell Richard exactly what she thinks of him, even spitting at him, a display of disgust. Richard, seemingly unperturbed, acknowledges her hate, and her reasons for such hate, and drops to his knees which, given his medical condition, must not have been easy for him, causing immeasurable discomfort and pain. He begs her, pleads with her, he vows to change, he declares his love for her. On his knees, he rips open his jacket to reveal his bare throat, and offers her a blade, encouraging her to kill him. Although initially holding the knife very closely to him, Anne finds she cannot do it, she falters, and lets the blade fall to the ground. She cannot, she will not, turn executioner. Richard then picks up the blade, and holds it to his own throat, but she dissuades him from driving the blade into his flesh. After Anne’s exit, Richard turns to the crowd, confiding in us once more, as he tells us that he only wishes to marry Anne because it suits his plans at that time, but as soon as he no longer has need of her, he will be rid of her. Later, Anne collapses during his coronation, the stage awash with banners bearing the colour and emblem of Richard. The cause of her collapse uncertain, she is subsequently carried offstage, her strength, her will, weakened. Whatever the cause of her collapse, she does not recover.
A key moment of the play, and one incorrectly taken as historical fact, is Richard’s murder of the Princes in the Tower. However, it certainly provides for gripping theatre, further shocking audiences at the heartlessness of Richard, and Shakespeare ran with the idea. It is very clear here that Richard sees the boys, played by two young actors, as a threat to his power, despite their age, and subsequent innocence. Richard, as far as he can muster, strives to maintain a somewhat friendly relationship with the boys, lulling them into a false sense of security, in order that they feel safe. At one point, one of the Princes runs up behind Richard and playfully jumps on his back. Catesby, supporter of Richard, knows this would not be welcome, and moves in, trying to prevent it. However, Richard whips round, furious, perhaps for the simple reason that his back is not fit to be jumped upon. Either way, the boys shrink back in fear. Having forgotten himself for a moment, he reverts back into his caring facade, which is now starting to crack. He understands the value of keeping up appearances. With these two young children, as with many others, Richard deftly draws them in, before betraying them, betraying this misplaced trust, in the worst possible way – by having them killed. The response of Emily Raymonds’ Queen Elizabeth on learning of the deaths of her two young sons is truly heartbreaking. As she mourns their deaths, we sympathise with her, moved by the depth of her motherly affection, and the level of her suffering.
In a bid to present himself as true heir to the throne, Richard gives the impression of being a devout, religious man. Appearing on the balcony of the stage with modest, plain robes over his uniform, a cloak to hide his “naked villainy”, he is the picture of piety, steadfastly clinging to his bible and prayer beads. With the help of his cousin, Buckingham, he is offered the crown. However, in a showy display of false modesty, he refuses. Although this is everything he has been working towards, he does not wish to seem overly eager, and bashfully turns down the offer of Buckingham and the other Lords, who come to tolerate, if not to accept, the idea of Richard as King. However, this is simply a ploy on Richard’s part. He knows they will will ask again, he knows they will insist. When they eventually turn to leave, he calls them back, and ‘humbly’ accepts, claiming that he is only doing so on their behalf. This shows the level, the depth, of his manipulation others – a shrewd character, he is able to foresee, to judge, their behaviour, and act accordingly.
As time progresses, Richard appears to become ever more paranoid, causing him to lose his grip on reason, so much so that it is not long before he begins to murder all those who, not merely pose a threat to his power, but even those who no longer have a bearing on his plans. At one point within the production, Richard’s supporters are having a meeting, headed by Lord Hastings in Richard’s absence. As soon as Richard enters the room, he stops dead in his tracks, incensed at this supposed challenge to his position. Having come to get a sense of Richard’s character over the course of the production, not least because of his frequent interaction with us, the audience anticipate how he will react to this, and we are proved right – Hastings is swiftly dispatched.
In the production, Richard walks on carrying a clear plastic bag, containing the bloodied severed head of one of his victims, carrying it with a callous complacency. He even proceeds to launch the bag at another. He is certainly no stranger to violence, and the ease at which he orders the dispatching of others, including members of his own family, is deeply unnerving. However, what is notable is that he never actually engages in violence himself – he orders others to do it for him – a calculating scheme to incriminate others, whilst his own hands remain clean.
Although much violence happens in the play, most of it happens offstage, and the production is not, therefore, graphic in its delivery. For those characters who are killed on stage, execution is swift. For example, Lords Rivers, Grey, and Vaughan are arrested, and then killed, on Richard’s orders. Clad in modern day orange prison jumpsuits, the three are forced onto their knees in a row and, one by one, are shot, falling forwards below the stage through a trapdoor. However, before they are shot, their heads are covered. Had the executioners been ordered to do this? Is it some soldierly mark of respect? Or are they simply unable to face their victims, to look them in the eyes? If the latter, it might suggest an amount of guilt, of shame, on their part, at carrying out Richard’s brutal orders – perhaps they don’t agree with them at all. This manner of execution is to be the same end that will befall Richard. What goes around…
Recognising that times have changed greatly since the days of Richard, director Posner has chosen to address the gender balance of this predominantly-male play, and has therefore cast several of the Lords of the original text as women, Ladies – Dukes, as Duchesses, as with Shanaya Rafaat’s Duchess of Buckingham.
Alexander Vlahos, very suave as Sir William Catesby, newspaper under arm and coffee cup in hand, doubles as a Press member in this production and, camera at the ready, takes photos as characters shake hands, feigning friendship. This parodies that infamously iconic pose we see with politicians of today – all smiles on the outside, shaking hands, whilst their fingers are figuratively crossed behind their backs.
The play’s climactic moment is the Battle of Bosworth – a huge-scale, all-out war between two dynasties. At the beginning of this scene, the two opposing sides, the Yorkists – Richard and his supporters – and the Lancastrians – Richmond, and his supporters – are in what resembles the interiors of two tents, discussing battle plans, the space separating them a no-man’s land. When the two leaders are left alone, the stage is split, and we see what happens to both men, simultaneously. Richard is visited by the ghosts of those he has killed. Courtesy of lighting designer Paul Pyant, a pale blue light descends over the stage, hanging low, like a mist, and the characters, wearing the clothes they were wearing when killed, are partially covered in a white substance, which gives them an iridescent appearance in the light, appearing as spectral figures. When standing together, they make up quite a big group, something perhaps we don’t realise when they are swiftly and suddenly dispatched in turn. They curse Richard, they damn him, telling him he will lose the battle that is to follow, that he has no choice but to “despair and die”. After speaking, one after the other, they begin to shout together, a disturbing cacophony of voices. Afterwards, they visit Richmond, telling him he is to be victorious in battle. Their appearance clearly has some influence over the two men – Richmond wakes, hopeful, whilst Richard wakes, screaming for Jesus to help him, as it dawns on him just how alone he really is – and, it is supposed, have a great bearing on the outcome of the battle.
Now set in the present day, however, the battle becomes a display of modern warfare, evident in its use of modern uniform and weaponry. This means that what is quite possibly the most famous line of the play – “My kingdom for a horse!” – is no longer relevant, no longer appropriate in this context, given that horses are not used in warfare today as they will have been in the time the play is set, no longer used in close combat. However, rather than cut it, which may not sit well with certain audience members, Richard bellows the line as he is being dragged onto the stage by two of Richmond’s men, his words almost drowned out by the rapid gunfire, but just audible so as to be clear. Rather than a literal and desperate request for a horse, the line here reflects his desperation, his willingness to trade his kingdom, his crown, for something of comparatively far lesser value, in exchange for his life. To no avail, however. After his death, Edward Sayer’s Richmond steps forwards to claim throne, the founding member of the Tudor dynasty.
A tale of Kings, and of would-be Kings, of manipulation, betrayal, tactics and plots, ’Richard III’, streamlined for the 21st century, is a sophisticated ‘Game of Thrones’ depicting a dynastic game of chess, powerfully compelling, and shockingly ruthless. A tactical production, a “tower of (theatrical) strength”, ‘Richard III’ plays against other productions, declaring, ‘Checkmate’.