It helps that there’s something cadaverous about John Mackay, with his close-cropped hair and his deep-set eyes, but he makes a chillingly convincing psychopath. In Andrew Hilton’s latest Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory production, Mackay takes on the role of the metaphorically and literally twisted king with a brilliant mixture of dead-eyed calm and the odd unsettling moment of mania. This is a play that rests heavily on its title character, and in Mackay, Hilton has a firm foundation on which to build another solid production.
It doesn’t quite have the breathtaking melancholy of last season’s Richard II, but this owes more to the continuous political chopping and changing that goes on amongst the court – some of it is electrifying but some of the complicated machinations get a little tiresome. Perhaps there could have been a few more cuts as there are times when it’s heavy-going, but given that it’s hard to pinpoint particular scenes as dragging it’s easy to see why we get over three hours of this dark play.
And, frankly, when Mackay’s malevolent Richard III or Lisa Kay’s blazingly brilliant Queen Elizabeth are on the bare stage, I wouldn’t mind if the production was longer. The cast, which includes a number of Shakespeare at the Tobacca Factory stalwarts, are adept at using the empty space, and Hilton’s direction means that no-one’s view is obscured by the four ceiling-supporting pillars for too long. Alan Coveney’s Hastings, Paul Currier’s Buckingham and Jack Bannell’s charismatic Richmond all turn in particularly fine performances, but it is Mackay’s King and Kay’s Queen who steal the limelight.
Kay shines in both her quiet scenes and as a shrieking, grief-stricken mother after the deaths of her sons. She is more than a match for Mackay’s Richard as he uses a terrifyingly logic to twist the past and look to the future. Mackay plays Richard as what we would probably call a psychopath: he is totally devoid of empathy but he kills for essentially rational reasons. As his murders pile up Mackay pulls off the difficult feat of showing us the monster he always was without ever losing his humanity. Hilton and Mackay don’t let us off the hook with a reassuring slide into madness, rather what drives this Richard III is bitterness and ambition – all-too-easily recognisable emotions. Against this dark and troubling portrayal, we have Kay’s mercurial Queen Elizabeth. Her emotional range is impressive, and the depth of her grief and impotent rage is deeply moving.
Hilton has once again caught the mood of a play with a light touch and a wonderful gift for coaxing the most beautiful verse-speaking from his cast. As ever, the lack of elaborate set and props leaves space for a concentrated and intelligent re-telling of a familiar story, and Hilton and his cast never fail to deliver.
Richard III is at the Tobacco Factory until 30 March. For more information and tickets visit the Tobacco Factory’s website.
Photo: (c) Mark Douet