Updated: Sep 25, 2022
The RSC's production of Richard III completes Shakespeare's second history cycle that began earlier this year with Henry VI: Rebellion and continued in Henry VI: Wars of the Roses. Arthur Hughes, reprising his role from the previous instalment, takes centre stage as Richard III, as he plots and murders his way to the throne.
Richard III is one of Shakespeare's best villains, striving for power and made bitter by lack of love. Hughes is the first disabled actor to portray Richard for the RSC, and as such, some of the insults levelled against him hit a little harder than they would have had an able-bodied actor been playing the role. However, it did feel as though some of these lines, spoken by Richard's mother (the Duchess of York, played by Claire Benedict) and Henry VI's widow (Queen Margaret, played by Minnie Gale) were thrown away. Gale's performance in particular appeared to be one-note; all shouting and screaming and seeming to lack substance.
To get to the throne, Richard has to see off the competition - his brother King Edward IV (Ashley D Gayle), his other brother George (Ben Hall) and Edward's sons (also, confusingly, called Edward and Richard and portrayed, for our performance, by Jack Hobson and Griffin Ashton respectively). Throughout it all, Richard is supported by the Duke of Buckingham (Jamie Wilkes) - that is, until the Duke decides to draw the line at murdering children, and ends up getting murdered himself.
One of my favourite scenes occurred at the beginning of the second half of the play, as Richard prepares to be crowned. The throne (the same prop that has been used since the RSC's production of Richard II in 2012) rises out of the floor, and continues to rise, leaving Richard with a long ascent to power. From here on, Richard only has one direction he can travel - down. The second half of the play charts Richard's swift fall from grace.
In order to try to secure his position, Richard meets with Edward's widow Elizabeth (Kirsty Bushell) and forces her to agree to allow him to marry her daughter (yes, his own niece). This scene was superbly played by Bushell and Hughes, the tension constantly simmering between the two as it becomes clear just how far Richard is willing to go to secure his title.
Of course, this doesn't go to plan at all, and it isn't long before Richard finds himself in battle with the Earl of Richmond (later King Henry VII, and played by Nicholas Armfield). Before his death, Richard is visited by the ghosts of those who have died to put him on the throne, including Mark Quarterly, reprising his role as Henry VI via video!
Overall, this was a well-acted production of Richard III, although it did leave me feeling slightly hollow. The production felt like a lot of talk and no action - maybe this is a result of Shakespeare's script, that chooses to tell us about deaths rather than show us them. After all the build up in Henry VI, King Richard never felt truly villainous - in fact, the role came over as more comedic in places and I even felt sympathetic towards him at points. For me, this wasn't the RSC's finest hour - although, being the RSC, this still put the play above many others that I have seen this year.
Richard III plays in Stratford-Upon-Avon until 8th October.
Tom Morley, August 2022