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Richard III

by on 28 April 2023

Another Other

Richard III

by William Shakespeare

Rose Theatre and Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse Theatres at the Rose Theatre, Kingston until 13th May

Review by Steve Mackrell

Classified as both a history play and a tragedy, this early Shakespearean play, written in his early 20’s in 1593, is a chronicle of evil, violence and murder and follows the rise of Richard, Duke of Gloucester, seemingly a cold blooded and calculating tyrant, who even slaughters his own family in his quest for ultimate power as King of England.  However, debate continues whether Shakespeare’s plot remains true to actual events. 

Turning briefly to historical fact, Richard III, only spent two years on the English throne before his death, aged 32, in 1485.  He was the last king of the House of York and the Plantagenet dynasty and his death, in the final battle of the wars of the roses by Henry Tudor, at the Battle of Bosworth Field, marked the end of the Middle Ages.  However, Shakespeare’s interpretation of these events, written some hundred years later, would have been seen through the prejudicial lens of the succeeding Tudor dynasty, so reflecting the then contemporary spin of discrediting the earlier Plantagenet regime. 

This latest interpretation of one of Shakespeare’s major classics – a co-production between the Rose Kingston and the Liverpool Everyman – brings a fresh, energetic and powerful version to the stage.  Chilling and engrossing in equal measure, this was a powerful re-imagining of a great classic – a show full of movement, sound and fury, with images that remain in the memory.

Actor-director, Adjoa Andoh is no stranger to “the Richards” having previously directed Richard II to critical acclaim at Shakespeare’s Globe in 2019.  Here, with Richard III, she is both director and actor, and in playing the title role brings a mesmerising intensity.  Any issues concerning differences in physicality between the historical King and the actor, in terms of gender, age and ethnicity are swept away as she struts and frets indignantly across the stage in an angry pursuit of power.  Crop haired and menacing Adjoa Andoh, far removed from her role as Lady Danbury in television’s Bridgerton, brings this faulted character vividly to life in a performance that delicately balances cruel tyranny against a gentler sensitivity.  Also avoided was the temptation to overplay Richard’s physical abnormality which historians now believe was merely a minor distortion of his shoulders.  Her performance was full of energy, as she bounded around the stage, dancing and clapping, with great comic timing, then switching to intense drama and emotion.  It was a flawless performance.

Then her directing skills, which conjured up a fast-paced quick-moving piece of theatre – and, at the beginning, a generous act of selflessness, with Adjoa Andoh delegating Richard’s famous opening lines to the company’s chorus – hence “now is the winter of our discontent” becomes a group ballad, turned into a simple and effective folk song.  Suitable also, because the opening is set in the Cotswolds, probably Gloucestershire, and creates a rustic world of Maypole dancing with country bumpkins, wenches and peasants before veering off into a world of tyranny and treachery. 

To pick out other individual cast performances, given such an excellent ensemble, is hardly fair but catching the eye, in particular, was Joseph Kloska’s Buckingham, Liz Kettle’s Margaret, Oliver Ryan’s Clarence and Clive Brill’s Hastings.  Another scene stealer was the use of a puppet, playing one of the princes in the Tower, in a delightfully effective and powerful scene.  There were also some good comedy moments, especially at the beginning of the second act, before reaching a dramatic climax in a cleverly choreographed “my kingdom for a horse” Battle of Bosworth.

This atmospheric production was well-served by a mesmerising electronic soundscape and a constantly moving lighting plot, used to great effect such as the scene depicting the prison in the Tower and, indeed, the frequent execution and murder scenes carried out in silhouette.  The set itself was a simple open space with just three bare tree trunks, allowing for fluid movement.

As for the costumes, they were more a kind of uniform.  All the cast wore identically tailored tunics, looking rather like sophisticated judo wrestlers, in white for York, red for Lancaster, and with the dead dressed in outrageous robes of tattered shreds.  

While challenging and stimulating, this interpretation made me wonder if Richard’s tyrannical behaviour could have been motivated by his feelings of isolation and rejection from the mainstream – an outcast from his peer group causing his insecurity and unsavoury reputation.  Could his tyranny have been triggered simply because he was different given his minor deformity and, according to historians, ugly looks?  In other words, an inability to fit in with the norms of his social group – perhaps an “other” – in today’s terminology.

The point is emphasised in this production of Richard III by casting, in the title role, this brilliant black female actor, in an amazing performance in an engrossing production.

Steve Mackrell, April 2023

Photography by Manuel Harlan and Shonay Shote

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