In Ewan Leslie, Simon Phillips has found the perfect vessel for Shakespeare’s vilest villain.
Leslie owns the stage as Richard. He drags his mangled foot across it so loudly it becomes a kind of second voice. He saws the air violently with his mangled arm and thrusts it so forcefully into his pocket that you fear he is about to burst his jacket lining. The half-demented grin on his face, and his tongue, which is often exploring the lesser-known corners of his mouth or lolling out over his lips, gives him the bizarre aspect of a maniacal child with some sort of mental defect. On one occasion I even saw a great cataract of saliva rush forth from his mouth as though he lacked control over his gastric juices.
It’s an incredibly visceral, palpable performance and one that deserves to remembered, most of all for its cheeky sense of humour. Leslie brings a sense of contemporary humanity to this famously inhuman monster. It’s a joy to see him having such a good time in the role. He is constantly in conspiracy with the audience: we cannot help but like him. This binds us to him so that, in our own small way, we share in his fate. It’s a very clever piece of playing which ensures that the more serious ensemble set-pieces function in counterpoint to, rather than as an extension of, our relationship to the protagonist.
Ultimately it is Leslie’s force of character which drives the production, giving it a dynamic balance of humour and menace, and it is his inexorable rise and fall that grips the audience. Which is all as it should be.
This Richard III actually kicks off with a scene from Henry VI, Part 3 in which we see Richard murdering Prince Edward. For an audience not familiar with the ins and outs of pre-Elizabethan history (as Shakespeare’s audiences were) it’s extremely helpful. Thus by the time we get Richard alone on stage by for his famous opening sililoquy
Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this sun of York
we have a sense that this is not a beginning but a continuation. When Richard wins, brushes away or does away with subsequent characters (Lady Anne, his brother Clarence, the two young boys) as easily as if he were swatting at flies it never seems implausible but somehow intuitively and dramatically logical. Richard’s rise to power, we understand, will be as unstoppable as the tide of history itself.
Simon Phillips’ direction has a very filmic quality to it. Filmic is a word often used in a derogatory sense in the theatre, code for something that lacks essential life. But nothing could be further from the truth here. This production teems with life. Though every drop of technical capability is squeezed from the Sumner theatre – TV screens, projections, flying props, sets and actors, trapdoors, smoke machines, translucent scrims, glass walls, rising coffins and podiums, enormous revolving sets – none of it detracts from the theatricality of the piece. It is, rather like Benedict Andrew’s mesmerising Season at Sarsaparilla a couple of years ago, an example of how well-used technologies can open up new dimensions in an old text.
The most interesting element for me (again, like Sarsaparilla) was the use of the revolve. It gave the production a sense of perpetual movement, the scenes flowing seamlessly onwards, which I felt well suited well the onrushing, inevitable feeling of the play. This worked differently to the revolve used recently in Michael Kantor’s Elizabeth. There it seemed to create the exact opposite impression: of mice endlessly running on a treadmill but getting nowhere. With no walls, and very little in the way of props, Elizabeth‘s revolve helped Julie Forsyth achieve a sense of fixity and stillness even though she was a whirling dervish of movement. (The revolve seems to be in the zeitgeist at the moment: I saw Neil Armfield use it again in Peter Carey’s Bliss last night.)
In Richard III the revolve allows set changes so swift and sharp that they resemble a camera cutting between scenes. After the play I was talking with one of the actors and he mentioned something which helped the penny to drop: apparently the creatives were hugely inspired by the West Wing series. They seem to have drawn on the way the camera often follows characters between rooms or down corridors (rather than cutting) which give that strong ‘halls-of-power’ feeling. In relation to Richard III this makes perfect sense considering the contemporary setting and the obvious references to US politics.
The whole idea of film, TV and new media feeding back into theatre raises some interesting questions about representation and what we expect from certain aesthetic forms. This excerpt from Marxist film theory (a massive tangent I know) might help make some sense of what is going on in theatre at the moment:
Just at the moment when black-and-white film had achieved a sufficient standard of technical sophistication to enable filming to be done on location more or less at will, essentially liberating both the camera and the narrative from the closeting confines of the studio, colour film was introduced.
As transformative as the look of colour would prove to be, its lighting requirements were such that in the early years, at least, location shooting was almost impossible. But once colour was introduced, black-and-white films immediately began to seem less expressive than they used to, their ‘reality effect’ loss its efficacy, until at a supreme moment of reversal black and white became (as it is now) the sign of art house expressionism. In deciding whether to shoot in black-and-white, or colour, directors had to choose between looking real, but feeling artificial, and feeling real, but looking artificial.
If we take these arguments and apply them to theatre it becomes possible to see similar forces at work. With the rise of new technologies, mainstage companies are now able to ‘represent’ reality in ways that we have become accustomed to seeing it, that is with filmic resemblance. A backlash against this has led to a fetishisation of poor, trash or junkyard theatre, which revels in its aesthetic limitations and restrictions. By making a virtue out of bare necessity, and rejecting the need for versimilitude, these productions often seem to contain more life and authenticity. Like in film, these older but rejuvenated technologies (‘I will show you a man in a dog suit instead of a dog itself’) have come to possess a greater reality effect, whereas new technologies stink of false doubleness.
We even find this dialectic playing out in Richard III. I am thinking of the moment towards the end of the production when Richmond and Richard present themselves to us a politicians. With the live flesh-and-blood person before us, and the simulacra of their close-up face projected behind, we are forced to compare reality with unreality. First we get the media savvy Richmond, channeling Barrack Obama, a smooth and capable orator. And then Richard comes to the podium, and in a lovely moment that endears us to him more than ever, he pauses. He cannot, or will not, read his pre-written speech. He scrunches it up, looks directly at us and launches into a froth-mouthed tirade. With his hunched back hooked over the lectern, and his glowering face all screwed up, he looks neither smooth nor capable. The strange and interesting thing is that, once again, we somehow prefer this ugly monster because he seems more real than his opponent.
There will always be those who will detest the MTC, and what they do, simply because they are the MTC. Which is entirely natural: we need to maintain the rage in the independent sector in order to maintain our own sense of identity. We have to denounce culture to have counter-culture, right? But for what it’s worth, I think this is an outstanding production. It is, dare I breath the words, mainstage theatre at its best.
Richard III is a triumph of large ensemble, set-piece direction. Like last year’s August: Osage County, it will prove to be a huge hit for MTC, and a well-deserved one.
I only have major gripe to air. The whole night I was gleefully waiting for Richard to chainsaw one of his victims to giblets.
My kingdom for a chainsaw?
As an afterthought…Leslie’s Richard looks a lot like Hitler, don’t you think?
But even more than the real Hitler he resembles Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Hitler in the Downfall, which has spawned so many great Youtube parodies, God bless ‘em!