Shakespeare’s use of dramatic licence makes his Plantagenet despot, Richard III, his archest of villains yet offers up a modern-day metaphor about the abuse of power.
Megalomania is destructive, divisive and destabling but, in true dramatic style, it is only a matter of time before tyranny is brought to its knees in this engrossing 16th century soap opera about England’s most dysfunctional family.
Antic Disposition has visited Richard III once before but the company’s new, modern dress, production couldn’t be more prescient.
We, of course, think of Donald Trump when we see the smarmy, duplicitious, paranoid king dispatching his allies and closest advisors with the declaration: “Off with his head!”.
But also, at the back of our minds, must be every devious politician in a position of power and probably every major company’s CEO.
No-one understands the Machiavellian principles of position and power quite like Shakespeare.
Even if Richard III has, historically, received a bad press, and an even worse reputation at the hands of The Bard, at least it makes him one of our most memorable monarchs.
Antic Dispo boldly took this new production to Leicester Cathedral, performing the text just yards from where the king is now buried.
Despite it initially causing a right royal rumpus in the city, where they are fiercely protective of Richard’s honour, the show won over critics and the public.
Now it is in central London, at the historic Temple Church, yards from the chambers of the country’s top judiciary and the highest court in the land and, where being sued for defamation of character, is an ever present threat.
Is the king given a modern, revisionist, interpretation? Is he not as black as painted by his author? No, and all the better for it.
Toby Manley creates a masterful fiend, as befits a literary character responsible for the death of a dozen kings, courtiers, men, women and children. He is so despicably evil that it takes all my strength not to boo.
Manley is outstanding as the epitome of malevolence, a base creature so furious at how he has been created, trapped inside a broken and twisted body, that he can see no other path for himself but depravity and vengeance.
“Since I cannot prove a lover, To entertain these fair well-spoken days, I am determined to prove a villain,” he says with a smirk that Manley finds hard to wipe from his pleasant face.
It doesn’t matter if the misogynist is raping and defiling women, or ordering the death of two little boys, it is done with a triumphant and jovial simper. Blackguards don’t come any worse.
Richard first lurches onto the transverse stage, that runs down the aisle of the 12th century church, dragging his withered foot and wearing his left arm in a sling.
True, the crooked back is missing but pity any poor actor’s physio bill when burdened with recreating all three, show after show.
His appearance in dinner jacket and black tie seems to emphasise his covert wickedness. Initially charming, quite debonaire and compassionate, it isn’t long before the ambitious duke reveals his true colours.
He cuts a swathe through the court, taking a shortcut to power that involves ordering the deaths of his nearest and dearest, with the occasional aside delivered to the audience to endorse his roguish charm.
There is only one moment when a flicker of humanity seemingly plays in his tortured eyes and that is when his outraged mother curses him for everything he has done and everything he is about to do. Richard looks genuinely bereft by his mother’s contempt.
But you can never tell. He’s a very good actor – Richard that is (Manley, too, who shines in the part). For a king in the making he is adept at fooling an entire royal court that he is right for the top job.
Sadly, as Joe Eyre’s excellent posh boy fixer, the Duke of Buckingham, finds out, there is no future in loyalty.
Director Ben Horslen gets a little gimmicky by assembling the dispatched on stage under a blue light.
Once or twice is an interesting idea but it stretches credibility towards the final scenes when the pack of ghosts almost outnumber the living.
It is also distracting having Richard’s older brother, Edward IV (Charles Neville) dressed, at one point like Noel Coward, complete with yellow cravat and smoking jacket.
The final scenes are played out on Bosworth Field with a GI Joe Duke of Richmond (Alex Hooper, swaggering and every inch the clean-cut hero) intent on bringing down the king.
As I said, Shakespeare plays fast and loose with the facts concerning the key players in his historical tragedy, but it works to provide audiences with a thrilling production, both back in the 1590s, when it was first performed, and today.
Although Richard III is an ensemble piece there are some standout performances among this always excellent company.
Robert Nairne is utterly convincing as Richard’s dispassionate and faithful henchman, Catesby, who is portrayed as a modern day security chief sporting earpiece and signature dark glasses. You know that when the glasses go on another soul is set for the hereafter.
And Louise Templeton gives a powerful and deeply moving turn as the distraught and vengeful Queen Margaret, who is dressed in the tattered uniform of a soldier and wrapped in the bloody remains of a red rose flag.
This is a well-crafted and fast-moving production that benefits from a strong central performance from Toby Manley as Richard, Duke of Gloucester, that holds your attention throughout.
Running at the Temple Church until September 9.
Antic Disposition’s Richard III is a well crafted, fast-moving production with a strong central performance from Toby Manley as the tyrant king.