FringeReview UK 2019
Sean Holmes and Ilinca Radulian’s direct, with Grace Smart’s set – with the gallery solely used for music-making – an earth-tipped and chipboarded frontage to the Wanamaker stage gives way to a parquee floor, eggshell-painted portals and red chaise-long in the second half with CSI plastic across floor and frontage later still. And a central point for the insertion of the future. Ellie Wilson composes the score, Megan Cassidy’s head of wardrobe, with Giles Block text editor and Tess Dignan head of voice, Philip d’Orleans as fight director Pam Humpage head of wigs, Ana Watson candle consultant and Cleo Maynard technician.
Winters bring content at the Wanamaker. Last year’s Macbeth was 2018’s finest major production of it, with its Faustian shadows rappings and whispers. Curses circle this Richard III too, the sacramental power of spitting queens.
Sean Holmes and Ilinca Radulian’s production can’t quite decide if it’s a comedy with curses, or something deeper. But with enormous vocal clarity, shrewd editing, and lithe storytelling, you get a whiff of sulphur, and Mephistopholean japes to catch souls.
The increasingly disturbed black earth centring the Wanamaker’s stage for the first half seems pretty Faustian too: ripe for spells and devilry, Dennis Wheatley even. It’s also Britain (echoes of ‘this blessed plot’ and Richard II earlier this year), and there’s a small planted apotheosis it works towards.
That we also get Richmond’s final speech so elaborated, so given to stage business as Steffan Donnelly drags off plastic sheets and leaves something behind to flourish, we know where we are. An England healed of terrible divisions: father slaying son, a son his sire and so forth. Following Henry VI with the same cast, concluding the Wanamaker and Globe’s whole Richard-Henriad-Richard this year, this reads very like a plea for now.
Sophie Russell’s Richard rudely crashes a photo-shoot royal assemblage against a chipboard-tacked backdrop, in spattered footballer’s gear. Inwardly, not outwardly half-made up, this Richard wheedles applause, later stalking on and off in outrageous white suits and Stetsons, and has a lovely singing voice. That’s for everyone she kills, which involves John Lightbody’s lowering killer Ratcliffe and a footlight switched on for the ceremonial death foretold of each victim. They neatly execute their death speech and walk off after being smothered in earth, banged with a hammer, strangled or asphyxiated.
But there’s those curses and helpless female agency behind them. If women literally embody the nation’s suffering: losing young sons as well as husbands, internecine war hurts them more than wars with France.
It’s there in Donnelly’s Margaret, revenant from Henry VI, is more distrait and mascara-streaked (with others it’s blood) ranging and raging: teaching queens to curse. Nina Bowers’ stricken Elizabeth, widow of Edward IV, and Matti Houghton’s helpless Anne with a devastating foreknowledge etched across her. As Grey and particularly Catesby Houghton compasses a PA to damnation with wry, weary loyalty. Her Catesby delights in silent retriever mode: bringing on CSI bags of beheaded victims.
Jonathan Broadbent plays a bumbly Buckingham in sock-suspenders, as if he’s the junior partner in Death & Co. Houghton’s Catesby knows the game better and keeps silence. That Richard flirts to filch Buckingham’s soul is a fascinating idea never developed. Broadbent’s charactet not prepared for the explosive psycho-flip also within this Richard’s compass when not in the giving vein. You wonder what motivates him. Except his prescience in abandoning Richard, though making the mistake of levying a separate force against a bottled spider. Folly.
Grace Smart’s set – with the gallery solely used for music-making – an earth-tipped and chipboarded frontage to the Wanamaker stage gives way to a parquee floor, eggshell-painted portals and red chaise-long in the second half with CSI plastic across floor and frontage later still. And a central point for the insertion of the future. Ellie Wilson composes the score, with haunting solo vocals and a memorable set of themes that make it this season’s most memorable.
There’s a gamey theme to the production. Even the murderers appear with footballing 1 and 2 on their backs. Philip Arditti, the repentant second of these, impresses as querulous Stanley, instinctively on Richmond’s side but that Richard has his son hostage. He hesitates dislike well and can break out to warmth as from a smother, when greeting Richmond secretly.
Sarah Amankwah still commands as a (not seemingly) ailing Edward, and as Duchess she quietly compels. It’s a pity we see less of her and one or two others like Leaphia Darko’s Rivers Ely and Blunt – Rivers is the hapless one which lodges; and Colin Hurley’s rumpled complacent Hastings above all with memorable resonance in his death speech, though he impresses as murderer Tyrell with a shrug of quiet desperation.
Russell like all the cast impress with clarity and vocal dexterity. Russell’s dark alacrity and sheer verve never flag either. One recalls the acclaimed one-woman Richard III of Emily Carling where psychopathy emerges in a kind of management of all the audience as named victims at a conference. Since deformity here is never quite plumbed, there’s a performative strangeness that’d be true of either gender.
Russell gathers in intensity as pace accelerates and speeches more rapidly dispatch: jump over necessary cuts in this second-longest and at moments nodding play. The entrance-hanging CSI PVC impresses in the dream sequence as figures loom to haunt. It’s a scene shorn of Richmond’s mirror opposite of benisons by the victims who crowd round the nightmared Richard. Lightbody’s earlier character George Duke of Clarence for instance pours a glass of red wine over Richard’s face: the first and most wronged in this production which gives Lightbody leave to detail George’s dream before his own murder to counterpoint this. Stage lighting plays a discreet part here but it’s those candles that push the transgressive themes, of one who leaps over boundaries to tear up recent war again, whose death might quench it. Peace as the last image shows, is a fragile growth, and not all grafts, red and white will take.
For all its rumbustious high-vis comedy, there’s just a chance some subtler elements of this production get missed. This Richard certainly seems to think they’re deformed too: a bottled shadow? A larky lycanthrope? Not Margaret’s She-Wolf of France, but England. Despite an artful jumble, just a few more minutes and this production could draw out the poison of being dead serious in terminal bursts of laughter.