There is something about Richard III that tempts directors to come up with a clever concept to give it contemporary resonance, so a massive round of applause for the Arcola Theatre for a resolutely non-gimmicky production that tells a powerful story lucidly, without the orange wig and American accents that might have been feared .
This play is easily strong enough to stand on its own merits and Shakespeare audiences are clever enough to work out the resonances themselves, thank you very much. I settled into my seat with a huge sense of relief, having been tipped off by Twitter pal Richard Hopper, that I was to be allowed to actually watch Shakespeare.
Gregg Hicks is an RSC star and at his absolute best in the intimate space of the Arcola. The theatre, not one I had visited before, is so small that it is impossible not to catch the eye of the livid psychopath whose force of will hypnotises his victims into submission. I found myself squirming in horror as his blunt, plain speaking Richard murders his way to the throne and beyond.
There has been judicious editing, in most cases, and some re-allocation of lines with Richard’s cronies, Buckingham (Peter Guiness) and Catesby (Matthew Sim) consequently coming to the fore. Their complicity and then disillusionment are compelling. Catesby has the demeanour of an SS officer, adding a powerful charge to his distress after the murder of the princes.
Sara Powell is very impressive as Elizabeth Woodville, Edward IV’s wife, again a part that often sits in the background. Her revulsion and terror at Richard’s attempt to win her approval for him to marry her daughter, after he has murdered her sons are skin-crawling. It is impossible not to be drawn into the action when the seats are this close to the actors.
More reasons to go? Tickets are a bargain– I paid £20 and in case you are wondering, the opaque postcode E8 is right next to Islington.
There was a free, after show talk with assistant director Quentin Beroud and Dramaturg (now there’s a word to eradicate from the world of theatre) Jack Powell with a chance to ask questions and also to hear what other theatre-goers thought. My goodness they have a well-informed audience at the Arcola.
The director is Mehmet Ergen and we clearly have him to thank that the production allows the story to tell itself. He, Beroud said, wanted to rely on the text and his concept was that the first half of the play should be Richard’s and the second half belong to the women he has wronged, something that works extremely well.
I always keep an eye on the audience and unusually I did not see anyone fall asleep, look bored or leave, added to which a nine-year old boy sat mesmerised throughout. There are not many productions that can say the same.
If there is a misstep it is the decision to cut and alter Lady Anne’s speech over her father-in-law Henry VI’s coffin which, Beroud said, was considered too confusing. Sadly, hearing Georgina Rich announce it was her husband’s coffin and then proceed to leave out two-thirds of the speech, I assumed she had forgotten her lines and was making them up. This is an iconic speech and I am sure I am not the only one who could have delivered it for her.
So my sixth Richard III on stage and it goes in at joint top with Jonathan Slinger’s jolly Uncle Richard in the RSC’s magnificent Histories.
Other visits to the original Tricky Dicky have been less successful. I left Derek Jacobi’s gurning Richard, directed by Kenneth Branagh back in the mists of time, at the interval. I tolerated the slasher version with Martin Freeman’s Norman Wisdomesque dictator but my husband left at the interval and I just about survived Ralph Fiennes’ body-in-the carpark at the Almeida but, in all honestly, I wish I had left at the interval.
Just at the point where it seemed I simply could not take another Richard III, along came the Arcola.
Does this production, along with the superb Hamlet from the Almeida, herald a new era in which directors let Shakespeare’s plays do the talking?
Directors need to remember that some of us might see a stronger parallel with regimes such as Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey, Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe or Kim Jong-un’s North Korea, all countries in which you would have to be very brave indeed to stage this production of Richard III, than with Donald Trump’s America or, give me strength, as suggested by one speaker at the fascinating after show talk, Teresa May’s Britain.
Richard III runs at the Arcola Theatre until June 6. It has a lovely bar, nice cakes, really helpful staff and knows what it is about with Shakespeare. Grab a seat!