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January 29, 2007

The Banality of Goodness: Richard III - RSC at the Courtyard Theatre, Stratford

Posted by Lincoln Allison

William Shakespeare's Richard III
directed by Michael Boyd
Royal Shakespeare Company
performed as part of the Royal Shakespeare Company's Complete Works Festival (April 2006 - April 2007)
Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
11th January - 17th February 2007

Earlier this month I was watching, and writing about, a contemporary play, Days of Significance. Although it was about soldiers who swore a good deal and pushed each other about a bit, they were, after all, modern and deep down they had truly soppy emotions, which they were struggling to express. So it's good to get back home, to the 15th century, or Shakespeare's version of it, where men are men and even women are likely to hack your arm off and hit you with the soggy end. And when they say they're going to kill all the lawyers, they mean they're going to kill all the lawyers. This is a continuation of Henry VI, of course, and features Jonathan Slinger in the role he has already developed in that play: I described him as the scariest thing I had seen in nearly forty years of attendance at Stratford.

Richard starts exactly where Henry finished with the man himself on stage apparently cradling a baby. But time has moved on: he shakes out the swaddling clothes (there is nothing in them), mops up the spittle and addresses his famous opening remarks to his nephew, now ten. And in another sense, time has really moved on from (more or less) mediaeval to our own world where there are gangsters, guns, aristocratic merchant bankers, paramilitaries, dark glasses and spin-doctors ("Let it be rumoured . . . "). The initial effect is very good, but I'm not sure it is sustained.

It's a preposterous play when you think about it. I like to think of the author being hauled up before some government committee and being warned that, since the man deposing the monarch at the end was actually the Queen's grandfather then it would be suitable, appropriate, good for one's career etc. if the deposed could be cast in an unfavourable light. And Shakespeare grinning slyly and saying,

Don't worry, I'll make him the baddest thing in the history of the world.
And he comes on the stage more or less chanting,
I'm so bad it's unbelievable.
Slinger continues where he left off in Henry VI. He has lost his red hair and acquired a huge red birthmark on his bald skull. This is a part where you cannot overact - if you could then Anthony Sher's famous "bottled spider" interpretation in the 1980s would have been worthy of criticism rather than the adulation it received. You have to make sense of a man who can have two small children killed and then go to the mother and ask to marry her daughter. When she objects he says, in effect,
You're not still banging on about that, are you? I'm trying to make it up to you.
Slinger's Richard is made up of several complementary elements. One is a child who throws tantrums and who is always going to push his luck way beyond self interest. This becomes the kind of child-like dictator who lacks the final survival instinct, a Hitler or an Idi Amin rather than a Stalin or a Mao. Most of all this is evident when he dumps the powerful and intelligent consiglieri, Buckingham (yet another excellent performance from Richard Cordery). With Buckingham, you feel, there was some possibility of making it through to old age, in which case Master Shakespeare might have written a very different play.

Richard is also a disembodied Machiavellian brain, to whom stratagems are obvious, but normal human sympathies and moral constraints wholly elusive. Most people don't want to kill their brothers and when, occasionally, they do, self-restraint kicks in. Not Richard: he is literally and completely unhinged.

This is an "ensemble" production, with a group of 35 actors who have been together for more than two years. One unusual consequence is that there are distinguished actors in non-speaking roles: Clive Wood as the ghost of Richard's father, for instance. They have developed some admirably clever tricks. Richard dreams before Bosworth, imagines himself whole, no hump, no limp, pinches himself, begins to dance around the stage . . . . But with wholeness comes the despised conscience in the form of the ghosts of his victims. Richard, hearing the sorrowful final condemnation from his mother, turns up the drums and goes into a wild, crippled bop, making a nagging mouth with his hand. Mothers, they do go on! This is one of the few moments when we feel a glimmer of sympathy rather than the usual drop-jawed fascination. If that's what she thought of him from the start some understanding is possible.

One of the most interesting things about the play is the character of Richmond who becomes Henry VII. Historically, he is an immensely significant character. In our textbooks he did not merely found a new dynasty, but a new age: the "mediaeval" stops at Bosworth, the "modern" begins. Even in the play he is a substantial character in the last third. He is as virtuous as Richard is bad. And he is so-o-o boring - the Head Boy personally chosen by the Headmaster. I have seen many a Richard and nobody manages to bring anything other than competence to the role of Richmond: here the unenviable task falls to Lex Shrapnel and I can't think of a way in which he might have done it better. At the end he offers us peace, economic growth, balanced budgets, inclusiveness for all. And you know from your school text book that he's going to deliver, but you can feel Master Shakespeare over your shoulder saying,

That's all very well for you, but I'm a dramatist.
An excellent production, then. Though I can't help feeling a little disappointed and it's really nobody's fault. This is a continuation of Henry VI - different setting, but same set and same actors - which I saw all together in a full house with a fully bonded audience. This had nothing like the atmosphere simply because the Courtyard was only just over half full and the audience was just the usual mixture. The theatre holds a thousand so if you put on eight performances a week you have to sell 8,000 tickets. So if anybody is to blame it is the convoluted politics which has left the company with two large theatres and one medium-large to fill.

Last word, as often, to a tourist. On the way out one young American woman asked another what she thought.

I thought the villain did a real good job,
she said.

So he did, in one sense. And so did his enemy, in another.

Lincoln Allison retired from an academic career in 2004 to become a freelance writer and broadcaster. He remains Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton.

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