Review: Richard III, Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Tuesday 23 November 2010

Originally written for The Public Reviews.
An all-male production of Shakespeare is always an intriguing prospect. In a play such as Twelfth Night it adds another teasing layer to the gender confusion, or sometimes merely the sight of a man flouncing around the stage in petticoats is enough to give an added element of comedy. Propeller, however, do not play for laughs in a Richard III that is sinister, compelling and distinctly bloody.

The absence of female figures casts an even blacker shadow over an already dark play of murder and political intrigue, as Richard schemes his way to the throne and the bodies pile up. In pre-Tudor England, everywhere reigns masculine brutality; glinting torture instruments dangle ominously from Michael Povelka’s metallic, clinical set, men perpetrate bloody murder and masked figures persistently lurk in the gloom, weapons in hand. The young princes are puppets with the faces of porcelain dolls, reducing even the semblance of innocence to nothing more than that – a semblance, a facade.

Dominic Tighe endows Queen Elizabeth with genuinely moving maternal anguish upon the discovery of her sons’ murders but never loses an edge of flinty hardness that is naturally enhanced by Tighe’s sturdy masculine presence. Propeller’s actors never let us forget that they are men, yet their lack of concession to femininity is appropriate to a play which is deeply concerned with the political scheming of men. Women such as Elizabeth and Tony Bell’s wonderfully venomous Queen Margaret are forced to don, as it were, the mask of masculinity in order to wield any power or influence.

The lack of women also projects an image of a sterile, sickening state, an image cultivated by the crowds of sinister masked orderlies and the folding hospital screens that usher in the actors. Pavelka’s design is awash with symbolism: the scheming, murderous architects of England’s destruction wear black, while Robert Hands as the Earl of Richmond is the nation’s literal as well as metaphorical white knight, arriving clad in a dazzling white suit; the royalty drink one another’s blood as England is bled dry by their internal battles. Chilling and fascinating though the central concept is, this production has employed a few too many metaphoric images, threatening to overwhelm the audience with a generous clutch of motifs that it sometimes struggles to keep hold of.

Any production of Richard III, similarly to Hamlet, rises and falls on the shoulders of its eponymous protagonist. As the murderously ambitious Duke of Gloucester, Richard Clothier is a commanding, irresistible puppet-master. He makes a deliciously, maniacally evil villain, all the while retaining an undeniable charm that keeps the audience hanging on his every word. Clothier brings out the consummate actor in Richard, playing other characters off one another, his manipulation punctuated by knowing looks and asides to the audience.

Propeller’s production, under Edward Hall’s able direction, highlights the brutality and drama of Shakespeare’s history. Music is integrated ingeniously throughout, with haunting choral singing filling the spaces between scenes, urgent drum beats building tension and an electric guitar heralding Richard’s accession to the throne. Although the concept is shaky at moments it is an excellently executed interpretation on the whole, with a core of superb performances. Sinister scenes are broken up with enjoyably grim humour but this is essentially a dark production and even as Henry VII takes the crown in the final scene, uniting a warring nation, Propeller’s ensemble of menacing masked men still loom in the shadows.

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  1. […] elements. Meanwhile all-male company Propeller, who impressed me last year with their very bloody Richard III, gave the same invigorating treatment to Henry […]



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