Thursday, November 7, 2013

Review: Richard III, Nottingham Playhouse Theatre Company, 5th November 2013

Years ago, I was at a drinks do in Washington DC, chatting with a hoary diplomatic type about the world leaders he had met. He talked wryly about the various political reptiles he'd encountered, with anecdotes here and there - some quite juicy. Then he got onto what marked them out, and narrowed his eyes: 

"Most had charisma. Some had lots of it. But no one I ever met compared with Kim Il Sung. That guy could work a room like nobody I've ever seen."

Kim Il Sung? The Great Leader? Working a room? 

That's what this keenly intelligent production of Richard III is about. Working a room - power in its microcosmic detail . . . how the most evil leaders in history could mesmerize those around them with a smile, a quip, a self-deprecating shrug. 

Kim Il Sung had that . . . apparently. Hitler had that, for sure. Those who worked closely with the brutal dictator spoke of his warmth, consideration, charm and sense of fun - not qualities one usually associates with the world's most evil man. Churchill, meanwhile, was roundly hated by those who worked for him, for his petulance, temper, obsessiveness, bullying. From the first words of this play, "Now is the Winter of our discontent" . . . Ian Bartholomew sucks us into the charm, wit and appeal of a monster at close quarters. More Hitler than Churchill, then, this Richard III uses his rare gifts for his own personal advancement and sadistic whims. Early on, for instance, he uses his wiles on the grieving widow of one of his victims, and charms her into his bed, asiding to the audience that he will dispose of her before too long. Where murder is concerned, at least, Richard is true to his word. He winks at us. We laugh along. 

The play is about the use of emotional intelligence and political cunning to attain power; and, like his slimy acolytes, we smile approvingly at Richard's maneouverings, as he ratchets up his political capital. We, like those around him, are deceived by his charm, wit and ambition. Milo Twomey is excellent as the co-scheming Buckingham, who champions Richard's rise to power, and rouses the populace to support the ascendant dictator. There is a memorable moment in the play, when Buckingham finally succeeds in engineering the succession of the triumphant, grinning, Richard. Suddenly, the dictator's expression drops to reveal the dreadful significance of what has just happened. A truly scary moment, mapped out in Ian Bartholomew's grim stare, which tilts the plot from machiavellian rise, to dictatorship - and ultimate fall.

The play is thus very much one of two halves. In the second part, acts of brutality, injustice and madness highlight the dangers of ignoring or appeasing evil politicians, no matter how charming or charismatic they are. The play shows that monsters are not detectable close up - that their brutal nature only reveals itself after it is too late.

Of course, the real Richard has been hard done to - and would have grounds to sue in Nottingham magistrate's court, were he around today. As the hated Churchill once said, "History is written by the victors," and once he was deposed, the ascendant Tudors really did a job on the last Plantagenet king. Actually, the culmination of this anti-Richard propaganda came in the form of this, the Bard's most biased play - as much a piece of emotionally intelligent manipulation as ever the real Richard was guilty of.

Its hopeless bias aside, however, Richard III is a magnificent work, which deals with serious, timeless themes - deception, loyalty, betrayal, dictatorship. The Nottingham Playhouse cast thus had a lot to play with, and director Loveday Ingram has done a wonderful job weaving these themes together. In this clever, harrowing, production, there are several standout performances. Natalie Burt is heartbreaking as the fresh, damaged Lady Anne. Joan Moon, meanwhile, plays the Duchess of York with terrifying authority. The hatred in her delivery as she disowns the nonch Richard, made me feel cold - a harrowing scene, brilliantly executed. Likewise, Siobhan McCarthy portrays Queen Elizabeth with humanity and depth. She literally moved me to tears in the scene where she calls out to her sons imprisoned in the tower; and the intensity of her hatred of the man who ordered their execution was frightening. The other members of the cast, Tim Chipping, Jim Creighton, Charles Daish and Paul Greenwood were all on fine form, crisply bringing the various characters of the Plantagenet court to life. Nyasha Hatendi gave a heroic performance in the demanding role of Richmond; and Sean Jackson produced a smart, thought-provoking version of Ratcliffe.  Nottinghamshire's own Paul Slack is a terrific actor, and played the role of Stanley as an intelligent apparatchik surviving in desperate times. Simon Oatley's portrayal of a flaky knife for hire with a vestigial conscience was unsettling - as indeed a flaky man with a knife should be. Finally, the two young princes, played by two young lads, were marvelous with their confident, perfectly pitched delivery. I don't know their names, but congratulations to both.

And congratulations to all involved with this marvelous production. It is one of the best I have seen. From the dying down of the introductory music, however, the stage belongs to Ian Batholomew - and I feel privileged to have seen his daring, complex performance. Go see it, and you'll see what I mean. By the time you leave, you will have been complicit in the rise of a monster. Richard III can work a room like that.

Richard III is at the Nottingham Playhouse until 16th November. and at York Theatre Royal from 19-30th November.  

+Shakespeare +Richard III +Nottingham Playhouse

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