Tag Archives: Richard III

Teenage Dick – Donmar Warehouse

Teenage Dick - Donmar Warehouse (by Marc Brenner)

Shakespeare and the High School rom-com go way back; the universality of his plays make them suitable for adaptation to a number of different environments and in the prescribed social structure of the American High School with its strict categorisations, power plays and love of social gatherings (proms, pep rallies and elections) it is a perfect setting to explore some of Shakespeare’s most enduring themes. Gil Junger’s 1999 reworking of The Taming of the Shrew became the accomplished 10 Things I Hate About You, a high point of the genre that made stars of Julia Styles and Heath Ledger, while Baz Luhrmann took a more traditional approach to the language if not the style of his 1996 version of Romeo and Juliet starring pin-up Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes. And plenty of High School movies have at the very least referenced or borrowed plot points or ideas from Shakespeare including Never Been Kissed in 1999 whose heroine played by Drew Barrymore adored As You Like It.

In this context, Mike Lew’s new stage adaptation of Richard III feels surprisingly at home in its new world of teenage angst and social divisions set against the backdrop of the Senior Class President elections at one normal American High School. Taking Shakespeare’s overarching plot, some characters and themes as inspiration, the way in which the two genres have been melded together is remarkably sophisticated although on the surface Teenage Dick looks and sounds like your almost average US teen movie. And while the adaptation has not found universal favour among the critics, anyone growing-up in the era of the High School rom-com will delight in its affection for the genre and an approach that celebrates rather than dilutes Shakespeare’s text.

From the mid-1980s with The Breakfast Club to the mid-2000s when High School Musical signaled the end of the golden age of this enduring genre, for 20-years the US high school movie was a relatively low-budget staple of productions aimed at the teen audience. While the tone varied, they all had their stock formula, usually some kind of disaffected loner or outsider drawn into the world of the cool kids in order to effect change, social realisation and self-belief. There were highs like Heathers (1989) and Mean Girls (2004) – both now stage musicals – as well as the satire Election (1999) and there were plenty of lows too but the genre launched the careers of actors from Paul Rudd to Lindsay Lohan, Zac Efron to Rachel McAdam, Alicia Silverstone, Emilio Estevez and countless others who all went on to bigger, albeit quite different careers.

In Teenage Dick Lew absorbs all of this to believable create Roseland Junior High where jock Eddie is gunning for re-election as Senior Class President having served in the position for two years based entirely on his good looks and football-star status. Surrounding him in what is a very small cast for this kind of setting, we have a teacher Miss York looking to promote social equality and justice, therefore easy to manipulate, and the outcasts demarcated by their disabilities. But integrating Shakespeare into this context makes Lew’s approach so much more interesting than that and soon the audience is questioning whether the apparent divisions we are shown are only truly visible to Richard Gloucester, our protagonist and potential villain.

The central role is recognisably Richard III and those who know the play well will enjoy watching his masterful manipulation of friends and teachers as he manoeuvres himself into candidacy while letting his helpers think it was their idea. But in our more enlightened times, Lew deliberately sidesteps the notion of a truly dastardly Richard while also deciding to tone down the violence to make it appropriate for the High School setting. Instead, Lew asks interesting questions – as Shakespeare does to a degree – about the perception of Richard’s disability and its role in preventing others from seeing him as a leader. Most importantly though, we see clearly how Richard fails to see past his own physical appearance and it is this misconception about others that drives his behaviour and the action of the play.

What is so interesting about Teenage Dick is that there are no straightforward heroes and villains, so we see both Richard and Eddie behaving badly, squaring-up to one another while also being reminded that they are essentially children, 17-year olds acting out with a greater capacity for emotional development than the early part of the play suggests. The audience becomes complicit in its categorisation of the characters into their High School cliches before Lew spends some time in the second half revealing more complex truths beneath the surface.

Richard’s plan to bring about Eddie’s downfall initially seems straightforward and entirely justified when the popular boy taunts and mercilessly bullies Richard, using his disability against him. Eddie’s arrogance and use of offensive language to describe Richard’s condition pit the audience against him while he appears equally cruel in dumping the play’s love interest Anne Margaret before the action begins. Yet as with Shakespeare’s version, our changing opinion and understanding of Richard starts to recast the people around him, including Eddie so before too long other traits including his friendship with Barbara Buckingham known as “Bucks” and his clear popularity at the Presidential Debate force us to re-evaluate our judgement of him. This is only given greater emphasis by the shocking revelations and events of the last section that makes us wonder if, as our narrator, Richard has been manipulating the perspective of the audience as well as the characters.

Lew follows Shakespeare and incorporates aspects of his work in interesting ways across the play, occasionally having Richard break into a flowery Elizabethan structured speech (something which “Bucks” reminds him repeatedly is weird) and maintaining the wonderful soliloquies in which the protagonist directly addresses the audience in spotlighted revelations of his evil plans – there’s even a very funny moment when “Bucks” is onstage for one of these and thinks her unresponsive friend has just gone to “his happy place.” More humour comes from the occasional phrase borrowed from other plays including Julius Caesar – it is used sparingly but adds to the semi-artificiality that both the High School setting and Shakespeare create in allowing Richard to narrate his own story.

But Lew also gives Shakespeare short shrift for his treatment of women and the expansion of Anne Margaret’s character to create the central romance as well as delving into her backstory, aspirations and own feelings of self-exclusion which are meaningfully explored. There is a very sweet tentative chemistry that builds between the initially nervous Anne and Richard, two people from quite different cliques who find humanity in each other, and it is this which prevents Lew’s play from becoming either too snide or too lightweight. The effect of Richard’s decisions have significant consequences for this character and Lew gives her a chance to meaningfully address the viewer and stake her claim to relevance beyond Richard’s existence.

Lew has stipulated that both Richard and “Bucks” must be played by disabled actors which makes perfect sense in this version of the story. Daniel Monks is superb as the teenage Dick of the title, a young man tired of being defined and reduced by his physical appearance so decides to assume the mantle of the villain – as his Shakespearean counterpart does – to upset the balance of power in the school. What makes Monks’s performance so interesting is the conflicted perspective he brings to the role and not only does his Richard believe he is a good person using nefarious means to bring about a greater good, but sometimes he really is.

This nuance is evident all the way through the show and while it takes Richard to quite different places, navigating both a sensitive and sweet relationship with Anne Margaret that develops a real emotional honesty, and into some much more controversial territory as he schemes and undermines his friends, Monks retains the oily fascination of the original character who cannot see beyond his own image and uses that to blame others, while finding a large degree of empathy for his genuine social struggles. And this makes his final actions all the more shocking as he loses control and perspective.

The supporting cast is equally fine, particularly Siena Kelly as the compression of two Shakespearean originals to create a young woman desperate to hide from the spotlight to focus on her dream of becoming a dancer, but she learns to care for Richard and Kelly makes her trajectory extremely moving. Ruth Madeley is a calm presence as best friend “Bucks”, the only character to remain rational throughout, refusing to be blinded by Richard’s obsession with Eddie and finding plenty of comedy in their sparky interactions. Susan Wokoma is fantastic as the enthusiastically naive teacher unwittingly drawn into Richard’s plans, while Callum Adams as Eddie and Alice Hewkin as Clarissa perfectly represent their High School tribes but get to offer some deeper sense of motivation and emotion beneath the surface.

It all looks wonderfully recognisable in Chloe Lamford’s basketball court setting, with floor markings and hoop redolent of any secondary school gymnasium. Characters are dressed appropriately for their social status with Richard in the trademark black jeans and t-shirt of the outsider while sweatshirts and school-branded baseball jackets mark out the sporty boys. The transformations are quickly managed by Director Michael Longhurst who takes a cinematic approach to scene changes using speedily rearranged furniture and lighting to maintain pace. The ball scene is simply and effectively achieved instantly establishing the characteristics of an event we’ve seen in countless movies, but it is the inclusion of projected social media feeds, hashtags, tweets and characters filming on their smartphone that brings this up to date, skewering our modern obsession with an instant visual record and online responsiveness that magnifies every humiliation and private moment.

The murderous tension doesn’t build in the same way as Shakespeare’s original and that sense of deathly danger is all but expunged, yet at only 1 hour and 50 minutes rather than three hours something has to give, not to mention that the idea of mass murders in a High School setting would be in pretty poor taste. Lew has nonetheless created a version of Richard III that suits this context extremely well asking the audience to consider attitudes to disability, power and social structures that perpetuate all kinds of inequality. Teenage Dick may make less sense to those who bypassed the High School movie, but Lew’s play is funny, sad and meaningful, and like Joel Edgerton and David Michod’s film The King, Lew demonstrates that Shakespeare’s characters, plots, structure and themes are just as important as his verse and vocabulary, proving that Shakespeare’s understanding of human nature is as relevant to a battlefield in Leicestershire as it is to a High School gym in America.

Teenage Dick is at the Donmar Warehouse until 1 February with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog   


Richard III – The Almeida

Ralph Fiennes as Richard III by Miles Aldridge

Richard III may well be the most frequently performed Shakespeare play of the last few years, seemingly spawning more productions than Hamlet. Given a new lease of life after the discovery of his body in a Leicester car park in 2012, we’ve seen the lead role played by Kevin Spacey at the Old Vic, Martin Freeman in a Jaime Lloyd version, a wonderful promenade production by Iris Theatre Company in St Paul’s church yard and Mark Rylance at the Globe. The Faction opened 2016 with its innovative version at The New Diorama starring Christopher York and a few weeks ago the BBC screened its version with Benedict Cumberbatch. Now at the Almeida, Ralph Fiennes assumes the role of Shakespeare’s most controversial villain.

Fiennes is having an incredible run of form on stage; he’s taken on three mammoth roles in major productions with a combined stage time of well over 11 hours. Starting with Man and Superman last year at the National, The Master Builder at the Old Vic in February – both shamefully overlooked by the award panels – and now Richard III for the Almeida; it’s an impressive commitment to theatre that in little more than a year has been incredible to watch. This performance feels like the end of a trilogy of works that have examined the ambiguous nature of power and its ability to release the inner strands of villainy and self-absorption disguised by a charming manner and degree of the subject’s star power. While Man and Superman’s John Tanner was the least dangerous, his vanity led naturally into Fiennes next role as Ibsen’s Halvard Solness the eponymous master builder who sacrifices everything for fame, and ultimately then to the dark and dangerous charisma of Richard III who covets greater status and will do anything to get it.

The Almeida’s production opens with the archaeological dig in that Leicester car park with forensic officers searching for remains in an open grave where they find the skull and curved spine of Richard. It’s a poignant opening that references both the ongoing contemporary interest in Richard’s story, and Shakespeare’s own version of it, as well as the burden of mortality which hangs heavy over this interpretation. Though mostly covered in a retractable glass platform, the grave is visible throughout reminding the audience that Richard will cause many deaths on his path to the throne – and reversing the soldier-ornaments concept from And Then There Were None, skulls appear on the back wall with each fatality – but also that for all his machinations this too will be Richard’s own fate. In an interesting directorial decision, at key moments the glass is retracted and characters move around the open grave and occasionally die into it implying perhaps that these decisions seal Richard’s own fate.

It’s a contemporary design using a palette of sombre black to reflect the constant mourning of the court, with touches of monarchical gold. Jon Morrell’s costumes and Hildegard Bechtler’s set offer a modern yet timeless element to the story, combining a minimalist simplicity with hints of cold stone palaces and Midlands battlefields. A swinging chain mail curtain separates the throne from the grave, a potent symbol of the role of war in the creation and destruction of medieval monarchy which reflects the play’s own concern with the grieving royal widows whose fortunes were decided in combat. More perhaps could be made of the military influence on this society in other areas of the design to really emphasise the years of brutality, suspicion and devastation that have afflicted Yorkist England.

Fiennes’s Richard III is a monstrous combination of magnetism and psychopathy that wins the audience’s interest early on. He begins by letting us in on his plans and as he wheedles his way towards the crown, his methods become increasingly dangerous and sadistic. But charm comes first and as we see in only the second scene language is his initial tool to convince the Lady Anne to marry him and then winning the various council members to his will. Later still we see his physical strength that despite his deformity, is sufficient to overpower and subdue Anne and Queen Elizabeth as well as prove a worthy opponent in battle.

The curved spine held up by the archaeologists at the start is mirrored in the prosthetic Fiennes wears which makes the ridges of the backbone occasionally visible through his costume. His right arm is clamped to his side, the left shoulder built up and one foot slightly turned in, but this is no panto representation and Fiennes absorbs Richard’s deformity into a fuller perspective of the character – Richard rarely draws attention to his differences and Fiennes subtly uses that to imply the powerful way in which Richard sees himself, as the same or better than other men. The intensity of performance is a joy to watch and each of his soliloquies are magnificent; he has a great feel for the verse and a stage presence that creates a very different energy and vitality when he’s there. Fiennes in full flight is really something to see, and as his Richard explodes with anger and recrimination, as well the more sensitive and troubled moments of conscience, it’s thrilling to immerse yourself in such a high calibre performance.

A number of other actors also stand out, particularly Finbar Lynch as Richard’s co-conspirator the Duke of Buckingham who helps to work the council and arranges a few deaths that propel Richard to the throne before bulking at the murder of the Princes. Scott Handy has a sensitive and moving role as the innocent Duke of Clarence, Richard’s brother and first victim that provides a stark contrast with our protagonist, while Aislin McGuckin is a fiery Queen Elizabeth who charts the descent from ultimate power to destruction really well. Her lengthy scene in the second part of the play with Fiennes in which he persuades her to let him marry her daughter is one of the best in the production, full of tension and bitterness that builds to what will be a controversial climax, although one which brings fresh perspective to this scene and will be a talking point on the way home.

With five shows under its belt, the Almeida’s production is still in preview so a lot can still change, and with three further performances before Thursday’s press night there are a few things the show could do to make even more of an impact. Shakespeare’s Wars of the Roses plays have a huge cast of characters to keep straight so it’s easy for an audience to be confused by the various Dukes and members of the clergy, and too often in the group scenes a lot of characters are dotted around the stage and seemingly not reacting to the speaker. You can see that Fiennes’s Richard is constantly thinking, whatever is being said the wheels are turning in his mind and his blood is boiling, and some of the other characters need to give more thought to how they feel about what’s being said and what it means for them. This would help to differentiate some of the secondary roles and give greater nuance to the shifting factions of the court.

Not much has been cut and with a first half coming in at 1 hour, 45 minutes, the show feels a little sluggish at first and there are a number of scenes in which various men sit around a table politicking so perhaps there’s scope to inject some dynamism in the staging. More thought too could be given to the role of the women to whom Shakespeare has given considerable focus but are not yet being used to make a forceful point either about the consequences of warfare in this period or as the only people able to see through Richard’s veneer of politeness. It’s a rare treat to see Vanessa Redgrave on stage (as Queen Margaret, the widow of Henry VI) and she delivers her lines beautifully but it’s not yet clear where the character is pitched – is she mad or do the others only think so? Likewise Joanna Vanderham’s Lady Anne has a single shouty pitch which isn’t capturing the pawn-like nature of the character or the lot of marryable highborn women to be treated like possessions. Phoebe Fox in the recent BBC version was a moving Lady Anne, while Kristin Scott Thomas in the McKellen film played her as a deadeyed drug addict detached from it all, so Vanderham needs to find an angle. Scott Thomas was actually in the audience and would be a good shout for the yet unannounced role as Cleopatra opposite Fiennes in the National’s forthcoming Anthony and Cleopatra.

Finally there are a couple of themes that are hinted at but never fully realised. Lord Hastings (an excellent James Garnon) is the only person with a mobile phone which he uses to impart news, but this device isn’t utilised (and could be) in other places. If the director, Rupert Goold, is making the point that only Hastings is engaged in this way then we need the other characters to respond to that, or having other people bored and texting may add to the big scenes which currently lack reaction. And while I like the car park opener there’s only a hinted return to that at the very end which feels a little incomplete as a comment on modern engagement, maybe we need to see the bones again or have some kind of re-interment to close the story.

Regardless of these small changes, this production of Richard III is fascinating, powerful and compelling. With a reawakened interest in this period of history, audiences are coming to this play with greater knowledge of the story and looking for an intelligent approach to one of Shakespeare’s darkest works. Fiennes is the life-blood of this production, creating a loathsome, terrifying and engaging villain who easily outmanoeuvres those around him and keeps the audience on the edge of their seat throughout. As an exploration in human morality Fiennes’s recent roles have taken us from a bachelor afraid of marriage to an emotionally damaged man avenging himself on the world, reminding us what a truly powerful performer he is.

Richard III is at The Almeida Theatre until 6 August. The show has some seats available from £10 but day seats are available from 11am at the box office or via lottery. There will also be the first live screening from The Almeida to cinemas on 21 July.  


TV Preview: The Hollow Crown: Henry VI Parts I and II –BFI Southbank

The Hollow Crown Season 2

‘…let us sit upon the ground / And tell sad stories of the death of Kings’, so speaks Shakespeare’s Richard II on his return from Ireland to find his kingdom carried away in his absence. And this is arguably one of the major themes of the BBC’s Hollow Crown season which opened with Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 & 2, and Henry V back in 2012 and returns to TV with a two part Henry VI and Richard III this month. Previewed at the BFI Southbank last week with some of the cast and crew in attendance, the new season opens with a two part digest of Shakespeare’s Henry VI which we watched back to back in a 4 hour marathon with Q&A, and seen in the context of the four earlier productions, emphasises how volatile this period of history was with innumerable deaths, lunges for power and cutting betrayals culminating in, as Richard II described, a series of ‘sad stories of the death of Kings.’

Henry VI becomes King at 9 months old when his father Henry V dies not long after his famous Agincourt victory, and the realm is governed for the next two decades by the Duke of Gloucester as protector. But the adult Henry is too weak to relinquish his Lord Protector and continues to defer decision-making, much to the chagrin of the warring houses of Lancaster and York. In the meantime, Richard Plantagenet, a senior statesman in the House of York decides to press his suit for the monarchy and what ensues across the two plays is a complex and intricate web of political and family intrigue as the young King is unable to hold back civil war – exacerbated by Henry’s loss of the French territories his father fought so hard for – which threatens to consume his entire kingdom.

I’ve never seen a stage version of these plays and the first thing Google tells you is that Henry VI is considered one of Shakespeare’s least successful works and there is considerable doubt that he wrote all of it. In the Q&A held alongside this screening, adaptor Ben Power and director Dominic Cooke discussed the ‘kaleidoscopic’ nature of the original text which they have reshaped and slimmed. The result is a gripping and engaging two part story that helps the first-time audience keep all the key figures straight without too much erroneous sub-plotting. Both parts bristle with danger as powerful men jockey for position as their King stands helplessly by.

Ton Sturridge, in his first Shakespeare role, gives Henry just the right amount of wide-eyed innocence and, interestingly, a fear of trusting his own judgement. He is easily influenced by anyone who offers him counsel, and we see his opinions change with the breeze as different poisons are poured into his ear. Sturridge’s Henry is timid and trusting of anyone who appears to have more political strength than him, and on the few occasions when he seems to be flexing his monarchical muscles his determination is short-lived.  For a character with almost no monologues (in this adaptation anyway) it’s difficult to completely understand his reticence but Sturridge is affecting, not least in Part II when his wish to be an ordinary man is granted but after enduring a grim life in the Tower the chance to be King again brings a moving flicker of hope – the echoes of Richard II are startling. Visually too Henry is shown to be an onlooker always, sitting back as more knowledgeable men debate the issues at court, and also hiding among the trees watching as his own troops fight for him as he has never fought for himself.

There are great supporting performances, not least from Hugh Bonneville as perhaps the only decent man at court, the innocent Duke of Gloucester, loathed only because he has the ear of the King – proof that at this time innocence couldn’t save you from the malice of others. Ben Miles is absolutely superb as the loathsome Somerset, a Lancastrian who intrigues to marry Henry to a French princess only to take her as his own lover and between them manipulate the King to forward the Lancastrian cause – Miles of course was recently a much praised Thomas Cromwell in the stage versions of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, a worthy rival to Mark Rylance’s TV incarnation. Sophie Okonedo is equally fantastic as the scheming Queen Margaret, strong, vicious and revelling in the chance to crush her enemies, even actually fighting in the final battle scenes.

Not everything about this works perfectly and while the political scenes are tense and engaging, the numerous battles are somewhat lacklustre and hampered by budget constraints. It’s pretty clear in every single fight scene that there are only about 20 extras which fail to sufficiently convey the thousands engaged in these civil war battles and the notion of a nation in crisis. There’s also some dubious CGI suggesting ships on their way to fight with France, and even worse ‘epic’ music that’s straight out of Hollywood-battle-scenes-by-numbers, and is completely at odds with what the Henry VI plays are actually about. Strip away the sword fighting and all of Shakespeare’s history plays are intimate in scale, about extended branches of the same family rowing about who should be King and this music implies a level of heroism in the battles which didn’t exist in this tawdry and sullied world of political double crossing. As much as these events are nationally affecting, the epic sweep approach seems inappropriate and these adaptations are at their best in these domestic scenes among a tiny elite which just happens to have wider dynastic consequences.

It’s also clear, at times, that these were made before Justin Kurzel’s movie of Macbeth was released, about which I was unapologetically gushing. A game-changer for the way Shakespeare can be filmed (and also on a reasonably small budget), these Henry VI adaptations are being aired in a new context. The problematic battle scenes mentioned above, feel less successful because Macbeth showed how a small cast produced something that is both horribly brutal and still somehow visually poetic. And even away from the battlefields, very occasionally these long adaptations want for dynamism – how many more times do we want to see a group of middle aged men shouting at each other in a variety of grand medieval halls? Is there a more exciting way to present some of this material?

One of the highlights for many will be Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance as Richard III which follows this two part Henry VI, but Richard actually appears for the first time in Henry VI Part II so we got to see a little of the background to the character to come. The physical traits of damaged arm and twisted leg are present and Cumberbatch will clearly be a desperately evil Richard with the early signs of his bloodlust and coveting of the crown very much in evidence. Initially it’s a little bit panto villain but by the time he delivers the only lengthy monologue at the end of the 4 hours it’s clear his Richard will chills us – ‘he plays a good psycho’ as Cooke and Power joked during the Q&A where most of the talk was about Richard III, much too Sturridge’s irritation who, quite rightly, wanted to focus on Henry. But it’s going to be an interesting season finale when it finally airs.

The Hollow Crown season has been a big success for the BBC and these long-anticipated new adaptations won’t disappoint. Playing these stories concurrently has offered the viewer something you rarely get in the theatre, a chance to see an entire sweep of history and the recurring themes that punctuate these plays – the relationship of fathers and their sons be they monarchs or nobility, the price of wanting and obtaining power, as well its fickle nature as you see prime movers in one play unceremoniously dispatched in the next and a new generation of players assume the political stage. This preview at the BFI certainly got me thinking again about Richard II and all those sad stories about Kings that followed. In the Hollow Crown we find that the old adage is true, power corrupts and whether it be mere soldiers or mighty monarchs nothing will stand in its way.

The Hollow Crown: Henry VI Parts I and II will be shown on the BBC in April to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. This event took place at the BFI Southbank – visit their website for more TV previews. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Richard III – St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden

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.

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Silent Shakespeare – BFI at St James’s Theatre

The heyday of the silent film was undoubtedly the 1920s when a combination of great cinematography and glamorous ‘movie stars’ drew audiences to the cinema. Yet the first moving pictures were thought to have been captured about forty years earlier in the 1880s undergoing continual refinement and innovation before the First World War helped to boost cinema-going. The BFI have unearthed and restored a collection of 6 incredible, potted Shakespeare plays filmed in Europe and America between 1899 and 1911, lasting between 1 and 20 minutes, and given a brand new score played live by the London Contemporary Orchestra.

Shown in chronological order, we see a one-scene King John, a UK production from 1899 – essentially a man on a throne gesticulating woefully; a fascinating version of The Tempest from, 1908 which although fairly brief has Ariel disappear and reappear in shot; A Midsummer Night’s Dream was my favourite, filmed in a forest with brilliant costumes and great sense of the mischievous atmosphere of the play (USA, 1909); King Lear from Italy in 1910 was tinted with coloured costumes, demonstrating how film-makers were developing techniques that would take another 30 years to become widely used. The actors, especially Lear, conveyed the story so well that you got a real sense of his sadness and despair as he finally came to understand the true value of his daughters; Twelfth Night also 1910 but from the USA, had lovely comic timing whilst Italy’s Merchant of Venice from the same year had some great characterisation. Richard III, a UK film from 1911, was by far the longest, taking inspiration from the complexity of the original play, interspersed with direct quotes. Whatever historians now think, this Richard wasn’t a hunchback but he was a ruthless murderer.

These films are fascinating insight into the quite rapid advancement of both visual technique and acting skill in this early period – moving, in just 12 years, from a shaky single frame to experimental multi-scene films. The music in any silent film is enormously important in helping to set the mood, and there’s something quite special about hearing it played live. Somehow you hear the music better and it enhances what you see. Last year a BFI-Barbican collaboration screened Hitchcock’s The Lodger staring Ivor Novello, with live music from the London Symphony Orchestra, which at the time, was a completely new experience. The score for Silent Shakespeare is performed by just six musicians from the London Contemporary Orchestra (3 violins, a cello, a guitar and a piano) and suits each play so well.

These are quite rare opportunities in London so I’d recommend going if you hear about them; the Albert Hall is showing The Artist with live music at the end of December. Neither the BFI nor St James’s Theatre advertised Silent Shakespeare widely it seemed – there were around 20 people for the matinee, and I only booked the night before because I accidentally saw it in Time Out. They don’t seem to have any more performances scheduled, but the films are on DVD and a really lovely example of early cinema. Let’s hope the BFI dusts off a few more silent classics and gives them a special live-music screening.

Silent Shakespeare is a BFI production shown at St James’s Theatre.


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