Richard III is a difficult play to get right. With Shakespeare’s protagonist being a power-hungry, ruthless, murdering despot, there is always the temptation to place the play’s context within the twentieth century, basing Richard on one of the many dictators during this period. Martin Freeman’s 2014 production at Trafalgar Studios tried setting the play in the Cold War, taking Richard’s ‘winter of discontent’ speech quite literally. Productions like this usually end up feeling like a gimmick, meaning that I had never seen a good version of the play on stage. Until I saw this Headlong production at HOME, Manchester.
Tom Mothersdale is a commanding presence in the role of Richard. The entire play gravitates around his magnificent performance as the murderous, maniacal villain. However, Mothersdale also refreshingly injects a great deal of charm into the role too. During his soliloquies, he retains eye contact with the audience, in both the stalls and the circle, cunningly seducing them into becoming complicit in his sinister scheming. Delivering Richard’s asides ironically, he also brilliantly uses pauses in dialogue to cast sly glances at the audience, creating a character who is appealing and likeable, despite his flaws. “I can smile, and murder whilst I smile”.
Flawlessly rendering Richard’s physical impairments, Mothersdale distorts his body, hunched over, with his left leg twisted and strapped into a metal frame. Whenever he stands stationary, Mothersdale leans on his right leg, resting Richard’s weight on his good leg. This gives an accurate indication of how physically demanding it would be for the character having to live with this disability.
Tom Mothersdale superbly captures Richard’s multi-faceted nature. Charming, yet malevolent, he is the first actor that I have seen to give Richard a sympathetic quality, evoking empathy, particularly in his estranged relationship with his mother, the Duchess of York (Eileen Nicholls). When the Battle of Bosworth occurs, and he confronts death in his final soliloquy, I actually started to feel sorry for him. “There is no creature loves me; And if I die, no soul shall pity me”. Mothersdale is undoubtedly the finest Richard III that I have seen.
The problem is that the scenes in which Richard is absent from the stage lack impact, and most of the supporting characters lack distinctiveness. This isn’t helped by Shakespeare’s play having a number of political scenes between the warring houses of Lancaster and York. I have always found this play confusing, trying to discern which house the characters belong to. The fact that this production has a reduced cast, with many actors doubling up roles, confuses matters further.
However, Headlong’s adaptation inserts a prologue, to help alleviate some confusion caused by Shakespeare’s play. Rather than beginning with the famous “Now is the winter of our discontent” speech, the play opens with Richard murdering his predecessor, Henry VI. Instantly revealing Richard’s barbaric nature, this scene helps provide context for those unfamiliar with Shakespeare’s canon of history plays.
Mirrors and looking glasses are leitmotifs throughout this play concerning physical deformities, and Chiara Stephenson’s production design visually represents this. Revolving mirrors encompass the stage, turning Richard’s corrupt nature in on itself, forcing introspection. Likewise, the audience are also obliged to examine themselves. These arched mirrors become transparent when used to manifest spectral apparitions, as Richard’s many victims stand behind them, ghastly pale, haunting him. A chilling Gothic catacomb, Stephenson’s set design is stunning, perfectly suiting the mood of Shakespeare’s play.
Sadly, the lighting and sound design is too intrusive at times, as whenever somebody is murdered, there is a sharp distorting noise, with harsh red lighting. Supposedly emphasising the violence, it is an unnecessary distraction that becomes annoying as Richard III’s body count increases.
Nonetheless, this is the strongest production of Richard III that I have seen. Tom Mothersdale is magnificent as Shakespeare’s seductively sinister monarch. His captivating performance is matched by Stephenson’s equally arresting stage design.