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Review: Richard III at the RSC

This production in Stratford-upon-Avon features disabled actor Arthur Hughes and is directed by RSC heavyweight Gregory Doran. Here's the Muddy verdict.

Photos by Ellie Kurttz RSC

Unable to stand the levity of the party joyously dancing onto the stage, petulant Richard bursts a balloon and – making a condom joke – flings the flaccid piece of rubber into the audience. It’s a clear sign of which way this production is going to go. Winter of discontent – meet summer season.

The funny box stays open right the way through what turns out to be a fair romp. This is a Richard who – between the business of performing a catalogue of ruthless murders – gives over no opportunity to get a laugh.

A stream of audience-inclusive asides and eye-rolling comic ensues, with Richard not the only character responsible. All are in on the fun in Gregory Doran’s light but engaging production.

Down the years there have been many celebrated portrayals of Shakespeare’s creation of malevolence, scheming and climbing to the top job on the still-warm bodies of so many victims. None made the journey to hell with such bonhomie and joy as this performance from Arthur Hughes.

Plots to incriminate the innocent, slaughter inconveniently placed children or force non-consenting women and girls into bed come across as mere ruses. This is no murdering king, this is the prankster royal.

It’s a very clever, costly game. As the final battle approaches Richard stomps his foot like spoilt child when told a supposed ally has changed allegiance and fled.

As a result it’s left to the women to provide gravitas – and that they certainly do. Kirsty Bushell, Claire Benedict and Minnie Gale all turn in convincing performances of grief-stricken family members unable to stop the murderous juggernaut.

A strong cast, moody soundtrack and the RSC’s policy of having every entrance performed at a gallop keep the action flowing nicely.

The production under the design of Stephen Brimson Lewis is very sparsely staged. There’s plenty of height at the back that’s not used. Towering over the stage is a vast stone cenotaph that has no clear purpose until the last few scenes of the whole play when it becomes the screen for a sharply-observed comment about the nature of pro-war media propaganda and then as the focal point for a single wreath commemorating the raft of victims from this conflict.

Equally impressive is the choreographing of doomed Richard’s battle eve dream. Having the ghosts of his victims then form the horse which carries him into battle before disappearing is inspired. It’s a well-timed surprise of which there could perhaps have been more.

But the biggest surprise of this production lies in the huge gap between the debate the controversial build-up suggested would happen and the absence of any actual hoo-hah at all. Any possibility that this production would be a profound statement about the merits, indeed necessity, of a disabled actor playing the disabled king simply didn’t materialise.

This was a very creditable, very likeable performance by a fine actor steering things as far away from heavy political points as it’s possible to get.

Richard III is on in Stratford-upon-Avon until 8 October. Click here to book or find out more.

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