After an excellent summer season, the West Yorkshire Playhouse is back with a very promising-looking autumn season. While Headlong have been entrancing audiences with their production of The Glass Menagerie in the Courtyard Theatre, the doors have at last opened into the Quarry Theatre, which is now home to the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s new production of Richard III, directed by Mark Rosenblatt.
I’m sure everyone knows the story of Richard III – a greedy, deformed man goes on a quest for power, leaving a trail of death and destruction in his wake. Butchering loved ones and shattering spirits with his malevolently zealous drive, the character has reached out to audiences for hundreds of years as an anti-hero that we absolutely hate to love. Yet, in this production, Reece Dinsdale’s Richard is somewhat more… reserved. Even in the play’s opening monologue, I don’t quite see the individual character behind the text. While Dinsdale provides an engaging character for us to watch, I don’t think his physicality or his overall character make him scary enough to warrant the atrocities he commits throughout. Richards in the past have won audiences over with both their terrifying physicality and pools of charisma that superficially glaze a broken man’s spirit.
So in this production, I wouldn’t quite call Richard the centrepiece, as he often is in a lot of productions. Instead, however, I’d like to draw attention to Conor Murphy’s brilliant set design. Bleak, grey walls and large silver-framed rings hang from the ceiling and move in a variety of ways to trap characters and create new environments seamlessly. A lack of set pieces make us focus on the characters and the rich language of one of Shakespeare’s finest plays, and Sinead McKenna’s lighting design creates some distinct atmospheres throughout. Jon Nicholls also serves up some moody and brilliant pieces of music to accompany and enhance these atmospheres, and helps make the overall scenography of the piece a memorable one. There are also some other top performances throughout: Dorothea Myer-Bennett is excellent as Queen Elizabeth, as is Rose Wardlaw as Lady Anne and several other characters.
Another niggle I have with this production is that I don’t think the concept is pushed enough to make it incredibly memorable and relevant to our current world. For instance, upon entering the theatre, cleaners garbed in white and goggles come and casually clean blood from the centre of the stage, where a rusty drain sits. This immediately makes me think of a cold, somewhat nonchalant atmosphere that would have worked very well with the production and reflected the central character’s overall attitude. Sadly, I never really saw this drain get used again, and I would have loved to have seen Rosenblatt’s concept make better use of the brilliant set design to increase the production’s relevance to the modern world.
I feel there’s also a bit of a mix-up in terms of the piece’s style: predominantly naturalistic and bordering on psychologically realistic, there’s some strange spikes in theatricality that feel a bit out of place, like they’ve been thrown in for good measure. Take the final battle, for example; Richard gets onto a bed and conveys to us that it’s a horse, while being pushed by the rest of the company. This doesn’t feel right, and looks more like it should be in a Kneehigh production or something similar.
Overall, however, this production is worth a watch. It’s a good way of getting a good sense of the play and showcases some excellent design choices and directorial vision, but has a few problems that could do with being ironed out.
Richard III is at the West Yorkshire Playhouse until 17 October. For more information and tickets, visit the West Yorkshire Playhouse website. Photo by Anthony Robling.