And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain.
Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre, proudly Europe’s first pop-up Shakespearean theatre, had popped up in York – the perfect venue for the bloodthirsty story of the last Yorkist King, Richard III. Throwing the dastardly cripple into the 21st century, Lindsay Posner’s modernised production is sleek – though perhaps a little vague in setting. But what it lacks in rooting it makes up for in style: this is royalty with a political spin, and it is quite delicious.
The cast of characters come out kicking quite literally in an energetic take on the classic bop ‘Come on Eileen’ fit with crazy choreography, framing this glorious summer as a time of cheesy revels enjoyed by the good-looking and the rich, whilst our anti-hero Richard (a superlative Dyfan Dwyfor) watches from above, like a spider in the web, scattering painfully down the staircase before snarling: Now is the winter of our discontent! Overhead lights gleam from behind him so he is almost rock-star-like in his infamy, dressed in a black suit and drawing his spider’s silk out in the most bewitching of monologues. Added leg brace adds to his spider-like quality; Richard’s disabilities are very well done, made believable, rather than grotesque. Indeed, it is hard not to root for Richard merely for the fact that a past of cruelty and mocking is self-evident, whilst the present for him is clearly painful. Rage against the machine, Richard.
Dwyfor is exceptional. Truly.
It is a performance that makes one despair that he isn’t already a household name. At once despicable and charming, unhinged and coherent, cruel and hilarious, and not for a second is he unconvincing. The duality of Richard’s nature is perhaps best summed up by Anne’s repulsion whilst Buckingham (here, gender-swapped) is evidently attracted to him. He trembles during his long-awaited coronation; he stands in guilty and solemn silence whilst his mother viciously reprimands him; he woos with an infectious sex appeal. He despises a hypocritical court but there are glimmers of vulnerability in this Richard which point to a desperation for acceptance that, through nature leaving him “half-finished”, he has been alienated from: his trembles, the struggle to raise himself from having knelt to receive the crown, his desperate clutching hug as he fears his own death, the tears in his eyes when his mother berates him. His path to nervous agitation and insecurity is palpable; the second the crown is on his head and he touches it appreciatively yet apprehensively with a half-mad eager grin, he seems to fray a little.
But he avoids pathos with sly and wicked glances at the groundlings, provoking challenge from the powerless onlookers. And he can be very funny – particularly in his religious-garb as he puts on the part of a devout churchman, simple and good and undesiring of the crown, before throwing the Bible sky-high as it falls to bits behind him and he staggers off, careless. God, if only Shakespeare could have meddled with the history and the expectations of his play – one cannot help but feel bitterly disappointed when the ‘better man’ wins the day with all the boring, goody-two-shoes nonsense!
His declaration of “there is no creature loves me” has surely never been more false.
The famous Battle of Bosworth is a fleeting affair, not so much the glorious victory of the Tudors, but a swift and blunt job, and the brevity of it all works rather brilliantly. The lighting design here is quite terrific, with indistinct characters emerging from completely darkness and fog before falling into spots of light like wild animals, whilst subtle costuming and sets offer visual cues as to the nobility of Henry VII’s course over Richard’s – as if the spectral chorus in their dreams weren’t blatant enough. White paint gives the dream-dead a ghostly appearance, blurring the line between reality and imagination. The am-dram of Shakespearean battles is good and all, but often veers to pantomime which is skilfully avoided here in favour of Richard being dragged screaming, “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” in a cowardly show, before being cleanly and quickly shot: all rather pathetic, and all rather sad. He killed many characters, but his seemed the most tragic to me – a testament to Dwyfor’s performance.
But Dwyfor is supported by an excellent ensemble cast, all of whom are unusually bright. Alexandra Dowling gives Anne a vicious streak which comes out most strikingly in her ghostly-nightmare curses, which are perfectly venomous, and quite joyous for the audience. Emily Raymond is the perfect verbal sparring partner to Dwyfor, and their battle of wits as he disgracefully attempts to win her daughter in marriage after murdering her sons is one of the greatest delights of the piece, and Alexander Vlahos is so watchable, evidently loving his role as PR-manager-esque Catesby.
Fun is had in making the murderers young and rebellious lovers, kitted out in designer brands and wielding a speaker rather than a weapon to kill, whilst Ratcliffe greets executions with vaping. It is nicely gory, with decapitated heads rolling in plastic bags. The tragedy of the women in the piece is carefully considered and executed excellently, perhaps becoming a little too obvious on the rendition of ‘Sometimes I feel like a Motherless Child’, but I did not find the choice jarring. The female characters standing barricade-like before the Tower is a lasting, stirring image.
I wonder though, if this production was unaware of the sheer charm it had in its Richard, as the image of every character spitting and throwing stones into Richard’s grave is unsympathetic when we still like Richard so much. Perhaps this was just me, but even after the murder of the princes in the tower, my sympathies remained with he who had charmed me in the first Act.
York’s Richard III is nothing short of a triumph: absolutely riveting from beginning to end with some gorgeous styling. Giving thought to this famous, dangerously close to comical, villain’s story, and emerging with something tragic in all the guiltiest ways: leaving you in love with a self-proclaimed villain.