Review: Richard III ~ theatre notes

Friday, May 07, 2010

Review: Richard III

The MTC's Richard III at last bears out the promise of the Sumner Theatre. Here is a show that is everything main stage theatre ought to be: exciting, contemporary, intelligent, beautiful, brilliantly achieved. Only the MTC can do work on this scale, and when they mount a production of this calibre, the whole game of Melbourne theatre is lifted several notches. Independent artists need to react against the mainstream, but a pallid establishment lowers the stakes: they need a substantial challenge. And here it is.

It demonstrates how fine a director Simon Phillips can be. He's given us some superb work: his 1988 production of The Importance of Being Earnest, with Geoffrey Rush, Jane Menelaus and a dyspeptic Frank Thring, remains etched in my memory. There was a lyric, deeply felt production of The Seagull in 2001, and his 2005 production of Marion Potts's and Andrew Upton's adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac was breath-takingly good. Given these, I have always assumed Phillips's gift is for profound surfaces, the joyous play of the comic, rather than the black chords of tragedy.

Well, critics live to be proved wrong. This is an outstanding production at every level. Phillips brings all his understanding of surface to Shakespeare in this production, and the result is a production which casts glittering illuminations into the abyss of the human psyche. Richard III is, after all, all about surface: the appearance that hides and reveals reality, the deceptive glamour of words, which create and destroy truth. If Machiavelli is the political theoretician behind this play, its philosopher is Friedrich Nietzsche.

Richard III is Shakespeare's first tragedy, but it is often placed as the last of the History Plays, ten plays which follow the bloody ventures of six kings of England. Although they were not written chronologically, directors have often put them together into historical sequence. As Benedict Andrews' brilliant STC production of The War of the Roses (which also featured a revelatory Ewen Leslie) demonstrated last year, the History Plays remain a devastatingly apt essay on the machinery of power. Phillips's reading of power is grim: Richard III is most often read as the final accession of peace after generations of vendetta, but in this rendition the ending, in which the just king ousts the bloody tyrant, is far more ambiguous.

The production casts shadows forward and back into the past and future of the action on stage. As with Ian McKellen's 1995 film of Richard III, it begins with the murder of Henry VI from Henry VI Part 3, but here the scene is used to different effect. It's not merely a device to signal the history behind the events on stage, but an illumination of Richard's twisted psyche.

He features in the earlier plays as the misshapen younger son of the Duke of York, and already there he speaks of how his deformed appearance blights his life. In Henry VI Part 2, he tells us: "The people fear me; for they do observe / Unfather'd heirs and loathly births of nature." In Act V of Henry VI Part 3, which opens this production, he knifes Henry VI to death, and turns to the audience to deliver a chilling monologue: "Since the heavens have shaped my body so, / Let hell make crook'd my mind to answer it... And this word 'love', which greybeards call divine / Be resident in men like one another / And not in me: I am myself alone."

Having never been loved, Richard refuses all human kinship, and resolves to become what he is seen to be. Since he is rejected anyway, he takes this rejection as the ground of his being: he becomes the supreme individual, self-sufficient and whole in himself, owing fealty to no one. This defiance is the core of all his subsequent actions. The counter-argument to Richard's "I am myself alone" is John Donne:

No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

This is the central argument worked out through the action of the play. In contemporary terms, it's the argument of individual power versus collective responsibility, right versus left. Phillips' Richard III brings both expressions into play by setting the action in a theatrical present: Shaun Gurton's beautiful design (assisted by Nick Schlieper's nuanced, various and sometimes astonishing lighting) exploits a revolve to whizz us through panelled corridors of power, into plush corporate boardrooms and aseptic offices and hospital wards. With some smart multi-media, the roles of the English nobles, who represent public opinion in Shakespeare's time, transform into the mass media and public relations shills and backroom hustlers.

Unlike many contemporary settings of Shakespeare, this works seamlessly all the way through the play: it's lightly and deftly handled through some intelligent editing and the sheer boldness of its theatricality. And this extra layer of mediation, in which action is flattened to reports on wide-screen television or on huge overhanging screens, throws an unsettling light over the play: I began to read the performances with the scepticism that attends political broadcasts on television. When Richmond (Bert LaBonté, giving an Obama spin to his role) promises peace and justice at the end of the play, it chillingly recalls Richard's empty promises at the beginning of his reign. Here comes the new boss, same as the old boss.

All this is realised with a theatricality I can only call showbiz. Shakespeare profoundly understood the sublime crudity of the stage, and this is where Phillips and his production team shine. The opening scene is thrilling, and from that moment every stage image is both unexpected and beautifully right. There are scenic transformations here that literally made me gasp out loud: for example, a miraculous shift from Henry IV's (Nicholas Bell) deathbed to his funeral is managed by lighting, casting the actors briefly into darkness and then into funereal silhouettes.

At the centre of this production is Ewen Leslie's performance as Richard. This is a deeply intelligent, passionate performance, physically and emotionally unafraid, in which Richard’s grotesquely misshapen body belies his agile treachery. By turns comic, savage, grotesque, bestial, sly and tragic, Leslie dominates the stage. More disturbingly, he exerts his evil fascination on the audience; we can’t but be moved by him, even as his charisma and physicality irresistibly recall photographs of Hitler brooding over his desk like a malign eagle. His Richard will be talked about for years: it marks the ascension of a remarkable actor.

Leslie is backed by an outstanding cast. There are some actors - LaBonté, for instance - who don't have the skill with Shakespearean language that others so amply demonstrate here, but it by no means impedes the enjoyment of the play. Jennifer Hagan in the bravura role of Queen Margaret is unforgettable. She first appears, muttering dire curses, in a hospital corridor, behind windows: she is dressed in a hospital robe and attached to an IV line: a "hateful withered hag" throwing her grief and hate into the faces of those who have robbed her of her royalty, and prophesying their downfall. When she next appears, clutching a chainlink fence as Queen Elizabeth (Alison Whyte) mourns her dead children, she is chillingly insane: the only thing that keeps her alive is her hatred, as all else has been burned out.

All the queens, embodying the grief caused by Richard, give rending performances. Whyte as Elizabeth is like a spring, so tightly wound that she becomes deadly, and her speech to the Tower of London, where she begs the stones to protect her children, is heartbreaking. Deidre Rubenstein's Duchess of York is played as a woman whose straight-backed self-control explodes in a terrifying imprecation against her son, and Lady Anne (Meredith Penman), broken and destroyed by Richard, is poignant and fragile. Humphrey Bower as Buckingham, Richard's amoral sidekick and PR man, gives this role a new, glittering energy, and Nicholas Bell in the double role of Edward IV and Stanley is quietly brilliant. And there are smaller roles, such as the Scrivener (Anthony West) or Roger Oakley's Tyrell, that offer unexpected pleasures.

But you should see it for yourselves. It's an exhilarating production, both for its own sake, and for the possibilities it opens. And if it's not a hit, I'll eat my hat.

Richard III, by William Shakespeare, directed by Simon Phillips. Set design, Shaun Gurton, costume design, Esther Marie Hayes, lighting design, Nick Schlieper, composer, Ian McDonald. With Nicholas Bell, Alison Whyte, Carl Nilsson-Polias, Ian Bliss, Ewen Leslie, Deidre Rubenstein, Jennifer Hagan, Anthony West, Meredith Penman, Humphrey Bower, Catherine Durkin, Zahra Newman, Roger Oakley, Ian Bliss, Paul Ireland, Bert LaBonte, James Saunders. Sumner Theatre, MTC Theatre, until July 12.


Anonymous said...

re the above, i say amen to all.

Seamus said...

Wow. Utterly brilliant. Amazing performances and superlative direction. It's a (very) old line, but it's so true that good Shakespeare productions uncannily speak to the contemporary. One thing (of many) that stood out to me in this respect was the way all the rival players here invoke the name of God to justify their actions: the Obama-like Richmond as well as Richard. Even though Richard is a very different figure to George W Bush, there were subtle connotations to that figure: in Richard's opposition to Richmond/Obama, his invocations of holy authority, the American-accented female Catesby in a Condoleeza Rice-esque advisory role, and prisoners whose orange jumpsuits were straight out of Guantanamo Bay. Of course, this play was far better and far more than a simple allegory, but the fact that these allusions arise without any change in the script shows how brilliant Shakespeare was, and how ugly the human grasping for power can be.

Andrew Wood Acting Studio said...


As I am in California, and won't get to see the production, at least I get to read your passionate, scintillating review!

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks, all! Good point about the contemporary references, which as you say were lightly but pertinently done.