Theatre review: Richard III, Arcola Theatre

Director: Mehmet Ergen

Grade: B

It’s no surprise that Richard III (R3 henceforth) is making a comeback this year. Last year’s Conservative Party leadership contest alone felt like a threadbare, feeble attempt at nested R3s which took a wrong turn at Fawlty Towers. The time is right to interrogate leadership, ambition and betrayal. And what better vehicle than R3?

Ergen’s R3 at the Arcola doesn’t stake a strong claim to any particular time or place. The male characters are dressed in Cold War Spy Drama wear for the most part, with the gentlemen stressing the trenchcoat motif strongly. Richard himself flirts with fetish gear in his chains and leather. Anthony Lamble provides a shallow, strongly vertical set, with ladders, alcoves and bridges hemming in the audience. In one way it’s a sensible choice for this play to make the stage so porous, so that the audience feels as though it’s eavesdropping and looking nervously over its shoulder the whole time. The claustrophobic proximity also heightens your sense of complicity in the compromise and murk of the play.

And that complicity seems to be very much at the root of this production. R3 is one of the most famous star parts in the Western theatrical canon, and the great Greg Hicks acquits himself very well indeed. He radiates a wicked, self-aware, malign charm. In a play so stuffed with self-deception, the naked ambition of his asides seem like an act of radical honesty. You relax when Hicks’s Richard turns to you, because you know that for once, someone is going to tell you the truth about what they want. But as good as he is at the character’s gleeful evil, he seems less able to square his guilt and terror at the end. I’ll give Shakespeare some of the blame for that, though. I’ve never been convinced by the speed of Richard’s collapse, and I can’t really blame Hicks for failing to square that circle.

In any case, as I say, Ergen seems to be more interested in the moral rot of the people around Richard, than in the man himself. Peter Guinness’s Buckingham is driven by a hypocritical ambition, and Jane Bertish’s magnificent Margaret is as clearly a monster as Richard himself, not least because of her implacable conviction that her own homicidal excesses were in the right. The only other character in the play who seems to match Richard’s moral clarity – and horrifying competence – is Matthew Sim’s arch, dandified Catesby. His prim, precise enunciation makes pitch-black comedy of some of the play’s most horrifying moments.

All in all, a sharp, intelligent production of this rich, formal, troubling play.

Richard III runs at the Arcola until the 10th of June 2017.

 

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