Most people know that history is often written by the victors. A deformed, scheming, nephew-killing Richard III was made popular by Shakespeare’s famous play, written while the Tudors who had deposed him were still in power. Rumours of this king’s malevolent plots and twisted form persisted in his life and well after his death, despite accounts refuting any physical disabilities. Even today, the name Richard III brings up these same visions of a crippled man who would do anything for power. Ian Dixon Potter’s new play attempts to refute the picture of Richard III shaped by Tudor propaganda, and aims to ‘set the record straight’ about this vilified king.
Though the play begins with Richard himself addressing the audience- ostensibly, we discover, as his army before the Battle of Bosworth -there’s nothing else that even comes close to a fourth wall break. This play is serious and traditional. Scheming from almost all the characters is constantly happening, every conversation is a battle of wits, and nearly no word is wasted. It feels like a historical Game of Thrones with murders and rumours aplenty. The gravitas of this play is definitely elevated with the words alone, but the whole cast brings their A-game. The stakes of everything feel real when they talk, and each actor succeeds in capturing the audience’s attention without leaving them bored or lost even when recounting the more laborious details of some of their plots.
Particular praise must be given to Catherine Dunne for her rendition of Queen Elizabeth. Dunne gives a captivating performance as the calculating and plotting queen attempting to protect her children, while also acquiring more power for herself. However, it is Nicholas Koy Santillo who steals the show- and rightly so -as the titular Richard himself. He presents a newly turned monarch anxious to do what is right for his country and hold onto the throne while spilling as little blood as possible. As the careful king, Santillo creates a sympathetic, intelligent, and increasingly troubled protagonist that is becoming increasingly overwhelmed as those only hungry for power surround him. If there was anything to criticise about this Richard III, it would be that he’s actually far too sympathetic, far too good. He only even thinks of taking the throne when he’s presented with evidence that delegitimises his nephews’ claim to it. He assumes those around him will act honourably. His ‘plots’ only consist of catching those wilfully breaking the law or breaking an alliance. It’s a stark contrast from the popular picture of Richard III, but I can’t help but wonder if there would be any moments when Richard considered plans that might have been less than honourable and executed simply to further himself. Instead, Richard is presented as the uncomplicated hero of this piece.
On the other hand, Henry VII, played by the boisterous Will Mytum, becomes a strangely comical villain in the second act of this play. His weirdly close relationship with his mother that hints at something incestuous, comes across as a ploy meant for comic relief, but just becomes uncomfortable. For a play that claims to be giving a historically accurate account of what happened then, this Henry VII feels vindictively cartoonish. His portrayal as a mother’s boy who comes up with very little himself feels like a caricature instead of a real character. I’m not saying his mother, Margaret Beaufort played by Zara Banks, can’t be conceived as the true brains of this Tudor operation, but maybe leave out the Henry’s strangely nasal voice and the creepy massages next time.
Still, there’s an undeniable gravitas to this play and Potter’s writing that begs for quality acting, which it got, and luscious, dramatic surroundings, which were sadly lacking. The small black box, kitted out with only some flimsy red curtains and one throne centre stage, didn’t feel right for this play. Good King Richard feels like a play meant- a bit ironically -for the Globe Theatre itself, or it least something equally as grand. Though there might be a few things to iron out, there’s no denying that Good King Richard has the makings of a great drama, and I can’t wait for the day it’s performed in the larger than life space its words demand.
Good King Richard is playing The Drayton Arms until 12 March. For more information and tickets, see www.thedraytonarmstheatre.co.uk
Photo: Golden Age Theatre Company