RICHARD III - AT THE ARTS THEATRE
Arachnophobes beware. This Richard III is the most spidery you’ll ever see; think Spiderman in a black costume – body bent, legs splayed in crooked joinery, movements side-to-side, menacing, ready to pounce. Tom Mothersdale is a Richard you’ll never forget – even though you may wish to in the wee small hours when all are to bed.
Headlong’s much heralded production of Shakespeare’s early history play turned the Arts Theatre into a kind of nightmarish Hall of Mirrors below gloomy castle walls reminding one of a scary journey on a bizarre ghost train. Setting aside Mothersdale’s astonishing performance (of which more later), the star of this show is the production itself. A set of gothic mirrors from the back of the stage –- show the characters refracted into a multiplicity of reflections. Thus at times we see many Richards (when one would be enough!). With a deft change of lighting, the mirrors become opaque doorways, and with another, a window through which we see the dead souls of those the nasty king has despatched (and there are many). Above the barely visible castle walls a gloomy balcony providing a startling backdrop to the action and high into the rafters, a ten-sided crown of lights that throw ever-changing shafts of light onto the dark deeds below. They can also change colour – to deepest red whenever the blade of an assassin (there are many) finds its way into mortal flesh. Throughout the journey into darkness, there is a brooding soundscape of deep bass notes and at one point during the last hours of the evil king’s life, a terrifying beat of a clock. In short the whole looked and sounded quite wonderful – was this spectacle really taking place on the good old Arts Theatre stage?
Less convincing was the choice of costume mostly in a sort of besuited modern dress – think Pulp Fiction but with some frankly silly additions such as strange furry collars. Also some of the cast seemed a bit underpowered, often a little hard to hear, as though overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the production values and Mothersdale’s performance.
The plot of Richard III is frankly quite tricky to follow unless you have read the programme synopsis or are au fait with late Plantagenet power play. Add to this everyone is called by a place name so it’s sometimes hard to get lost without a Shakespearean satnav. Mothersdale dominates every scene getting genuine laughs from the audience as the king takes us into his malevolent confidence. He is all sly winks, conspiratorial smiles but this is a Richard III with a brittle and damaged psyche. He twitches and bites his nails – there is the suggestion in this reading of a wounded child becoming through the vagaries of ill fate a wounding and wayward adult. There is a terrific stand off between him and the mother who curses her own son (played with suitable venom by the excellent Eileen Nicholas) and a similar tussle with Queen Elizabeth (a sassy Derbhle Crotty). There was a nice directorial touch as each murder is followed by the ghostly appearance of Henry VI (one of Richard’s many victims) dressed in tails and red sash.
Another set piece worth the ticket price is the final scenes – Richard’s nightmare before his fall at Bosworth Field and the battle itself – a continuation of the king’s psychological breakdown though there is a splendid stage fight with his nemesis Richmond (soon to be crowned as Henry VII). Director John Haidar threw all the mirrors and lighting trickery at these scenes to create a thrilling sense of macabre reckoning. All that said, I came away from the production with one image in mind – that dark, twisted but damaged human being – not a spider after all.