There is no doubt in most people’s minds of Richard III’s unbridled lust for power and his murderous and Machiavellian plotting and conniving for the crown, no matter how much his supporters try to tamper with his odious reputation.
RSC associate Greg Hicks has played pretty much all of the major roles in Shakespeare’s weighty canon but Richard III has eluded him until now.
It is a physically arduous role but one which he clearly relishes. Sadly he is let down by Mehmet Ergen’s ponderous direction and an unusual lack of creativity at London’s Arcola Theatre where the 170-minute production opened last night.
I know that Shakespeare’s Richard III is second in length only to his Hamlet but it seems a lot longer.
The male cast were obviously told that they were doing an abridged version and so spent the entire play in their overcoats ready for a quick departure – or is this what passes as “costume” these days?
I don’t know how they did it. Most of the audience were feeling faint with the heat inside the theatre so I can’t imagine how they must have felt in thick, buttoned-up, winter trench-coats with, in some cases, additional scarves, gloves and flat caps.
Hicks delivers all the speeches with relish, his now craggy face and hooded eyes occasionally contorting as much as his twisted body.
There’s no doubting his command of the language or his ability to bend the rules a little. You know that he’s hatching yet another devious plan when he calls for his sinister henchman, Catesby.
“Catesby!” He whines, stretching his name by several syllables, and Matthew Sim appears, ready to do his master’s dirty work.
In fact, if anyone’s reputation is being besmirched in this production it is he, turned from, in reality, a respected royal confidente and former Chancellor of the Exchequer, into a drug-snorting and quite chilling mass murderer.
When Richard narrows his eyes and passes his tongue over his lips you know that he is about to deliver another devastatingly cruel blow. The misogynist king looks almost reptilian.
Deformed from birth with a hunched back and lameness, he rails against his family and society in a bid to leave some sort of mark. He is profoundly conscious of his physical defects and the revulsion that others find in his appearance.
“Cheated of feature by dissembling nature, Deformed, unfinish’d, sent before my time, Into this breathing world, scarce half made up, And that so lamely and unfashionable That dogs bark at me as I halt by them,” he piteously complains. You almost feel sorry for him.
Here is a Richard, less hunched, but cleverly bent out of shape by the use of a chain, whose behaviour is infantile, petulant and demanding.
When we first see Hicks he is sitting at a cafe table playing with a small spinning top, later he guns a toy aeroplane through the air after it had been snatched from the dead hand of his cousin, Edward, the expected child king.
What Richard wants, Richard is determined to get – by any means.
Any number of soap operas involving families can trace their roots back to Richard III with its convoluted plotting by relatives against each other in a bid for dominance. The trick is trying to keep up with who is who. It’s fine if you are an historian or a fan of Shakespeare but this family tree is crowded with names.
It’s hard to put your finger on what is lacking in this modern dress production. Individual performances are good. Sim is excellent. When Catesby takes his glasses off then you know someone is set to feel the cold steel of his flick knife.
Sara Powell as Queen Elizabeth is outstanding. Her complete abhorrence and incredulity at Richard’s demand to marry her daughter – after he’d had killed her two sons and husband – is powerfully played.
And, generally, it is the women, who are used and abused by Richard, who make the most impact. Jane Bertish is impressive as Margaret as is Georgina Rich with her nuanced performance as Lady Anne.
There are times when it appears that Richard almost defers to Peter Guinness’s far more assertive Duke of Buckingham. Of course, we know who is pulling the strings, but the puppet appears to be the kingmaker wielding the power.
But the production lacks poetry, rhythm and much action. It doesn’t try to include any modern references to power struggles. It doesn’t speak to the audience at all. It is just a well-spoken, plainly presented Shakespearean piece.
This no-frills production has no flourishes or extravagant scenes because, quite frankly, the Arcola doesn’t have the space for them.
The set is almost non-existent save for a mezzanine walkway which must make viewing difficult for some of those in the circle.
A disappointing and unremarkable Richard III but a charismatic central performance from Greg Hicks.
Richard III runs at the Arcola Theatre until June 10.
Greg Hicks assumes the physically arduous role of the misogynistic, murderous king in the Arcola Theatre’s disappointing and unremarkable Richard III.