Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
We’d booked tickets for the matinee performance of Richard III at the RSC in Strtatford on the Saturday of the August Bank Holiday weekend. We set off mid morning for the short drive into the town so that we could spend a few hours having a mooch around. Stratford is only a small, albeit pleasant, town but it’s very pleasant on the waterfront of the Avon, near the RSC theatre building. There was a craft market taking place so we spent some time browsing
before buying ourselves some drinks and a bite to eat. It was a hot, sunny day and it was peasant sitting close to the water.
Afterwards we made our way over to the theatre, where the crowd was beginning to assemble
Built in 1932 the theatre was designed by the then 29-year-old Elisabeth Whitworth Scott, it was the first public building to be designed by a female architect. There was a major renovation of the theatre at the beginning of the 21st Century. While the facade was retained the inside was gutted and completely rebuilt and there were additions, including the viewing tower and new roof top restaurant. This was the third time I’d seen a production in the theatre (I’ve also seen a performance in the Swan Theatre which is part of the complex). The first visit was with J way before we had children and well before the remodelling, to see a production of Julius Caeser. The auditorium was rather old style with a proscenium arch with seating in three tiers – a traditional stalls, circle and balcony arrangement. Not being so well off at the time we were in the cheap seats up on the upper level in “the Gods” with the stage some way off. During the renovation the facade with it’s Art Deco touches was retained, but the inside was completely gutted and remodelled. It now has a “thrust” stage with seats around on 3 sides and the audience much closer to the stage than previously. The other two productions we’ve seen have been in the the remodelled theatre which re-opened in November 2010. (correction – since writing this I realised that the second visit was when my daughter was 15 or 16 – we went to see MacBeth her GCSE play – so that would have been before the remodelling)
Shakespeare made Richard III to be an outright villain – no doubt to curry favour with the Tudor monarch Elizabeth, who’s grandfather, Henry VII, had defeated Richard at Bosworth to claim the crown. There’s been a reappraisal by some historians following the discovery of his body underneath a carpark in Leicester in September 2012. Being a loyal Lancastrian, I’m having none of that! I’m saying that with tongue in cheek, of course. The truth is the “nobility”, who were all related, were all a bunch of ruthless mafia-like gangsters squabbling for power and inflicting damage on the majority of the population. Nothing changes
So, what of the production? The casting was “colour blind” which may upset some people. But a play isn’t a documentary and the colour of an actor’s skin is irrelevant for this play – we can ignore it and concentrate on their acting.
What we can’t ignore is the disability of Richard III. He is known to have suffered from scoliosis or curvature of the spine (confirmed by the discovery of his skeleton) and Shakespeare portrays him as a hunchback, using this as a metaphor for a twisted personality. In the production we saw he was played by Arthur Hughes, a disabled actor who has a rare condition known as radial dysplasia which means he has a deformed arm. In an interview in the Guardian he tells us
“With me, when I walk out on stage, it’s completely apparent that I have a disability. I can’t hide that. There’s a truth to it immediately, before I’ve even opened my mouth.”
“It’s not to say [able bodied] people can never play these parts. But I think it’s time that we had that lived experience shown properly.”Guardian
He was very good – a strong performance, really hamming it up and portraying Richard as a pantomime villain.
I also particularly liked Kirsty Bushell as Queen Elizabeth, the wife of Edward IV, who is the main female character in the play, Minnie Gale as the vengeful and mad Queen Margaret (wife of the deposed Henry VI) and and Micah Balfour as Lord Hastings – a duplicitous character who supports Richard in his rise to power and then is turned upon and murdered.
The victor of Bosworth, Henry Tudor who became Henry VII, comes across as a saintly character. He wasn’t really – in real life he was probably just as ruthless as his predecessor.
The set was simple – with a large reproduction of the London Cenotaph dominating the stage and with very few other props. Much of the atmosphere was created by the lighting with strong highlights and shadows
It’s a long play – 3 hrs 10 mins (including a 20 mins interval) – but the strong performances kept us glued to our seats. The longer first half showing Richard’s ruthless rise to power and the shorter second half portraying his downfall. The final battle scene was simply portrayed, using the ghosts of Richard’s victims, who had visited him before the battle (old Shakespeare loved his ghost scenes to haunt the villains before their downfall – he uses the same trick in MacBeth) to form the horse that Richard loses (“A horse, a horse, my Kingdom for a horse”) and then to act as Henry’s steed as he vanquishes the doomed Richard.