For its first play to be staged in 80 years, the Alexandra Palace Theatre houses Shakespeare’s Richard III, a Headlong production directed by John Haidar.
There is a sense of occasion on this, the opening night, as the audience enters the grand auditorium and finds their seats for the first time in the best part of a century. The newly refurbished theatre is quite simply magnificent. The husk of the old theatre remains, sensitively adorned with trendy modern lighting and plush velvet seats. To be honest, it’s worth paying a visit to this production just for the venue alone.
It strikes me as a rather unconventional choice, however, to select Shakespeare’s Richard III as the opening production to grace the boards. History’s – and Shakespeare’s – ultimate villain, who murders his way indiscriminately to power. Tom Mothersdale’s Richard treads the line between various interpretations of the character: irredeemable psychopath or misunderstood anti-hero?
His famous monologue in which he proclaims himself to be “deform’d, unfinish’d, sent before my time… I am determined to prove a villain” stokes the play’s central contention: is Richard’s inner evil reflected by his monstrous appearance, or his grotesque nature the result of ill-treatment by a society and family in which he does not fit. Is his villainy a choice or predetermined by his deformity? Either way, a modern audience might be inclined to question the appropriateness of an able-bodied actor staggering about the stage in a leg brace under the guise of a ‘cripple’. Or perhaps it would be less appropriate still to cast a disabled actor in the part.
Certainly, this would not have been a consideration at the time of writing. It is also pertinent to note that Richard III was penned only 100 years after the events it depicts; as close in time as the first world war is to us. Ending with Richard’s demise at the battle of Bosworth Field in which Henry VII triumphs to establish the Tudor dynasty, it could be regarded as a piece of anti-Yorkist propaganda pandering to the current monarch – Henry VII’s granddaughter, Elizabeth I.
The aesthetic of the production design is reminiscent of the later, darker Harry Potter films. Mothersdale’s almost mechanically jerky and stilted physicality, wild black hair and pallor remind me of Edward Scissorhands. Backed by Headlong’s trademark fluorescent lighting and edgy soundscapes, the set is stark but effective; a hall of mirrors surrounds Richard with versions of himself and images of those he has murdered on his path to the throne. Encapsulating the “bottled spider”, he conspires and confides in the audience, revelling in his own evil deeds as he rattles around the space. Mothersdale’s Richard is at turns pitiable and sharp-witted, though a bit too pantomime-y to be truly menacing.
The modern costume and staging juxtapose with Shakespeare’s language, mirroring the converging of old and new in the Alexandra Palace Theatre itself. Somewhat disappointingly though, the staging fails to fully fill out the cavernous space. Similarly, the sound doesn’t quite reverberate the way I want it to.
Another minor quibble I have is that the twisty plot isn’t quite signposted well enough for those unfamiliar with the play – although the programme does contain a helpful synopsis. Minimalism of production and sound don’t quite fill the set or reverberate around the cavernous space as much as I want them to.
There are some fantastic elements at play here too: the second half kicks off with a truly stunning set-piece, rich with symbolism, depicting Richard’s coronation. The casting is stellar, with a particularly emotionally vivid performance from Eileen Nicholas as Richard’s mother. Caleb Roberts also stands out as a young actor of formidable talent and promise.
Overall, this is an accomplished staging of quite a difficult play. Haidar delivers sharp, edgy Shakespeare in striking surroundings. But in more ways than one, it doesn’t fully resonate in this time and space. Like its protagonist, it feels somewhat unfinished and “sent before [its] time”.
Richard III is playing at the Alexandra Palace until 31 March. For more information and tickets, see the Alexandra Palace website.