First published on The Public Reviews website.
There will be quite a few versions of Richard III in the coming months; since finding the body in the car-park last year, and now that the courts have decreed the he’ll be interred in Leicester, interest in Shakespeare’s play has increased. Sherlock colleagues Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch will both present their interpretations in the coming months – Freeman at the Trafalgar Studios and Cumberbatch as part of the BBC’s Hollow Crown TV film series. Add to that Mark Rylance’s critically acclaimed production at the Globe and Apollo last year, you would be forgiven for feeling a little overloaded with interpretations of the controversial Yorkist monarch.
While Freeman’s has received some fairly negative reviews both for the setting and central performance, the Iris Theatre’s new version, beautifully staged in the church and gardens of St Paul’s in Covent Garden is not one to miss. The play begins with the Battle of Tewkesbury in which the York brothers – Edward, George and Richard – defeat King Henry VI and kill his son. Edward becomes King and all is seemingly right with the world. Behind the scenes however, Richard is slowly and designedly removing those who block his path to the throne, starting with the old King, but soon dispatching his own brothers, his wife and most infamously, his nephews, before assuming the crown for himself.
The role of Richard is not an easy one, being almost entirely devoid of subtlety or remorse for his killing spree. Unlike other famous Shakespearean assassins who are often innocent or loyal until their lust for power corrupts and thereby destroys them, Richard is villainous from the start so the character doesn’t move much beyond that state. David Hywel Baynes takes this fairly flat villain and rather brilliantly gets the audience on his side, by drawing on the humour of Richard’s duplicity, first wheedling and pleading with key players, then mocking them to the audience. It’s also a very charismatic and physical performance; Richard’s deformity is not just expressed through the standard hump and bound hand, but in a squirmy, tensed quality throughout his whole body emphasising the supressed mania of Richard’s character.
The rest of this small company take on multiple roles and genders, which seems more a pragmatic decision about managing the various characters than a political statement. Mark Hawkins’s Queen Margaret is particularly astonishing, dressed like an extra from the Rocky Horror Picture Show, full of terrifying venom and screaming curses, yet it absolutely worked. Nick Howard-Brown as George, Duke of Clarence delivered a heartfelt final speech before he was dunked in vat of wine, and Sam Donnelly was notable in the dual role of King Edward and Lord Stanley. The rest of the company was rather less memorable, however and it wasn’t always easy to keep track of who they were.
One of the most remarkable aspects of this production is the staging, taking place in various locations around the church. This is very well managed by director Daniel Winder, with characters taking the audience naturally from the steps of the church, which forms the main location, to scenes among the trees and rose beds of the gardens, as well as into the church itself. Sound, by Filipe Gomes, is also used very cleverly to enhance the atmosphere, not just music, but creaking doors and echoes suggesting the Tower of London, and the clatter of horses and clashing swords in the battle scenes. Plenty of seats are provided so there is very little standing, which at over three hours including interval is an important element.
Seeing Shakespeare in the open air is always a very different experience and in the grounds of St Paul’s – ‘The Actors’ Church’- it feels particularly special, whilst the final scene inside the church is a powerful spectacle. This production is innovatively staged and gripping to watch, with an excellent central performance that almost has you rooting for him. There may be a lot of Richard’s to see this year, but the charm of this one is going to be hard to beat. It ends on Friday so see it while you can.
Richard III runs until 25 July at St Paul’s Church in Covent Garden and tickets start at £12.