Written for CultureWars.org.uk
You have to feel sorry for the poor bastards who find themselves opening a small-scale fringe production of a Shakespeare play featuring a regal psychopath the night after Patrick Stewart opens on the West End in Rupert Goold’s lauded-to-the-skies production of Macbeth. As it turns out, comparisons between the two are as pointless as arguing the toss over who’s better between Marcel Marceau and Laurence Olivier. Where that Macbeth is spectacular polish at a distance, this Richard III is spit and sawdust right in your face. The new Southwark Playhouse’s adaptable space is set in traverse, with the long runway of the stage enhanced with Naomi Dawson’s rough wooden catwalk rising gradually to a severe metal throne at the far end.
The small multi-ethnic cast enter from all sides to the sound of live drumming - it takes a while to work out that this massive noise is live, as the drummer is tucked up on top of a breeze-block-built back stage area, and is consequently in what is essentially a high-up echo chamber, which amplifies the sound, lending it an unexpectedly impressive quality. It’s one nice touch of many. Another neat idea is the little puppets which are used to depict the various murders carried out by Richard and his cronies. Although it feels that if the show hadn’t been designed partially with massive numbers of primary school age children in mind (this production is commissioned with the aim of providing several free performances for local schools along with the usual adult evening show), these moments could have been made much more violent and gory. The foreknowledge of this predominantly school-age audience is probably responsible in part for the massive cuts which have been made to the text. The piece runs and hour and a half straight through, and the text has been absolutely stripped to its bare essentials. It is not a decision which wholly works, since, when coupled with a small cast and a lot of doubling, at times it becomes incredibly difficult to work out exactly who is conspiring with whom against who.
Directors Dan Goldman and Donnacadh O’Briain have assembled a solid cast which boasts a handful of outstanding performances. Thomas Armstrong as Edward, Stanley and Clarence offers a series of military generals with icy, Ian Richardson-like demeanours. Alex Britton does a nice line in textual jokes as Rivers, doing “quotation marks” with his fingers every time he addresses Gloucester as “noble”. Jotham Annan who plays Buckingham and Richmond is a real discovery. His verse speaking is outstanding, while his portrayal of his two parts is both strikingly committed and emotionally “true”. Of course the real question of any production is the quality of the actor playing Richard, and John Lightbody is very good. His style of playing is deceptively simple. There’s not a lot of psychological jiggery-pokery here, just an honest, intelligent and intelligible delivery of the script. He is suitably candid and charming, and his account of Richard’s deformities is well handled. More impressive, though, are his reactions. In the scene where Richard’s mother, Margaret, curses her son, Lightbody’s face remains impassive throughout, with tiny trances of emotion - both misery and rage - flitting briefly across it. It doesn’t hurt that he is faintly reminiscent of a young Nigel Hawthorne, albeit minus the slightly arch, mandarin manner.
Overall this is a credible, theatrical stab at one of Shakespeare’s most enjoyable plays and certainly deserves a wider audience.