“I am Determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.”
Considered by some to be one of the more difficult plays to stage from Shakespeare’s canon, Richard III tells the story of the Duke of Gloucester and his futile battle for the throne of England. Richard is a complex character, whose motives can be interpreted in a handful of varying ways. He is also a man racked by guilt for his actions, which eventually leads to his downfall. All in all, Richard III is the story of an embittered man, quite literally bent to a life of villainy from the day he was born.
A simple set confronts the audience: a garish throne and four large fluorescent tube lights hanging from the ceiling fight for attention. Tradition vs. Modernity. One’s gaze seems to slip between the two. We are confronted with old and new, and we don’t know why. Jack Channer’s lighting design carefully portrays a bleak, lonely landscape, with a provoking use of side and back lighting. Although it remains unclear why the company decided to do this. A gentle haze blankets the action throughout the play, harking back to a recent war or maybe foreboding the coming conflict. The fluorescent tube lights, however, are concerning. There is no doubt they can invoke some striking scenes. At times, they are reminiscent of the bars of a gaol, other times they conjured images of go-go clubs and Berlin raves. Sometimes the lights aren’t even used at all. They have the potential to be the flagbearer of a strong concept, if used correctly, however some more consideration is needed on their function. The same holds true for Daniel Harmer’s sound design. The sound in this show is tremendous; well-executed editing and some clever tricks with levels and compression at times provide the show with a much needed fourth dimension. One inspired moment shows Michael Rivers’ Murderer removing a pair of headphones with the music from the loudspeakers reacting appropriately. It was a slick transition, but it begs the question why it happened in the first place; The Murderer has no need for headphones, and they are never referenced again.
Sam Coulson’s Richard betrays an attractive man driven by circumstance rather than anything else. This Richard is not particularly conniving or witty. Instead his drive stems from a deep-rooted determination. Coulson has ostensibly spent time with Richard, and has developed a deep characterisation with a thoughtful physicality to match. Particular merit must also be given to Rivers, whose simultaneous portrayal of two Murderers is inspired.
Director Séan Aydon has created a show with moments of playfulness and raw emotion, but one which lacks coherence. Speeches tend to be rushed with words being dropped from the end of lines, and actors fight for dominance by shouting ever louder as scenes progress. I find my fingers creeping towards my ears, and the words totally blowing over my head. Many scenes lack conviction, and there is a nagging sense that the actors may not know entirely what they are saying. This results in a confusing first act where lots of characters are quickly introduced and just as quickly forgotten, and a second act full of promise but over all too soon. Relationships are neglected to the point that it seems Richard reacts identically to every character. The love for the mother who bore him and suffered him does not seem to penetrate, and results in the same level of affection given to a hurried messenger. The strength of this production lies in the brief moments of integrity in the show, which can be found in two scenes during the second half. The absurd imagery and bleak/violent lighting work best when we see a discontented Richard upon a throne.
This production takes a creative risk, with an admirable commitment to gender blind multi-roling and natural regional accents, but it becomes caught up with concept and loses sight of performance.
Richard III is playing at the Rosemary Branch Theatre until January 29.
Photo: Caroline Galea