By William Shakespeare Directed by Edward Hall Presented by Propeller at Norwich Theatre Royal on 19 February 2011
Richard III brings the War of the Roses cycle of history plays to a close in bloody fashion. Arguably Shakespeare’s most villainous king, we watch in horror and delight as Richard murders his way to the throne, unable to resist his cruel wit and dark humour. This is a hugely entertaining and diabolical adventure that tells the story of one man’s journey to heaven, then back to hell.
Picture Credit: Manuel Harlan
In horror films, there is usually only the one serial killer, only one mask-wearing, knife-sharpening, candy-offering psychopath, and most of the rest of the cast are as lambs to the slaughter. In the England of this play, innocence is accidental, either a result of being too young to have “dived into the world’s deceit” (3.1.8) or more likely an oversight, an opportunity for evil lost to circumstance (Buckingham’s “garments are not spotted” (1.3.284) with Lancastrian blood). Conscience has come to the stirring of dregs (1.4), and cannot prevent murder.
(A grim irony is that the characters who are listed as “Murderers” are actually the least adept and capable, and most likely to heed their consciences. That reward in the end eggs them on is no reflection on their low-born status. After all, the so-called nobility are in it for all they can get: Buckingham quickly turns peevish when the “earldom of Hereford and the movables” (4.2.94) are held back by Richard. Later, Forrest, one of the murderers suborned by Tyrrell to kill the princes in the Tower, almost changes his mind on seeing “their alabaster innocent arms” (4.3.11).)
To set the scene, standing on stage as the audience assembled (but could hardly settle) were about a dozen cast members in the white coats of butchers and the white masks of nightmares, each holding some implement of destruction selected from the worryingly large range of saws and drills and knives hanging from scaffolding rails. (A black comic touch: these were old-fashioned tools, grimy with use, the kind you might find in granddad’s shed, not the sterilized high-tech gleaming steel of a modern kitchen.) For butchery on this scale, it seems, it is best to be well prepared.
Jonathan Bate (Bate and Rasmussen 2007:1300) describes Richard III as a star vehicle for Richard Burbage, “the first of the small group of Shakespearean plays that are not ensemble pieces”. All the more credit, therefore, to the Propeller company for the way they populated the stage and performed brilliantly as a group, not letting the “elvish-marked, abortive, rooting hog” hog all the limelight as he bustles along.
The English flag is lowered, the nation thoroughly exhausted by decades of civil strife. At least the flag is a natural material, one not repulsive to the touch, unlike the plastic abattoir curtain of industrial proportions that cuts laterally across the stage. The design fits the conclusion many of the characters themselves eventually reach: Hastings speaks for many as he describes how his horse stumbled and started as he rode to the Tower, “As loath to bear me to the slaughter-house” (3.4.85). The Tower is the official place of execution, nesting within the larger nation that is itself a more informal killing field. On stage, the Tower is a mobile platform, curtained with more plastic flaps, like an infernal shower cubicle into which characters are stuffed and then dispatched.
Against this set, again brilliantly designed by Michael Pavelka (black and white compared with the gaudy colours of Errors), and out of the mouths of these killers (who on stage has
not had a hand in some horror or other?), came the most beautiful English choral music. Jon Trenchard, as well as playing Lady Anne, describes in the programme how he wanted to give the play “the feeling of a Requiem Mass”. The plainsong, madrigals and English folk songs contribute to creating this and more (the two murderers singing a snatch of “Down among the dead men” as they dance by Clarence’s corpse was a fine touch of black humour). Overall, the musical design of this production was magnificent. The contrast between sweet music and hideous depravity is apparent in the euphonious opening speech, with its string of softly assonant vowels — “Now are our brows bound… Our bruisèd arms… Our stern alarums… Our dreadful marches…” all leading to the one similarly syllabled word that is this play’s and this cycle’s crowning theme: “war”.
Richard Clothier brightly menaces as Richard, one consummate actor playing another (Bate also uses this phrase in his introduction), and throughout he displays “that alacrity of spirit” and “cheer of mind” (5.3.76–77) which he loses only at the end, on Bosworth Field.
This production brings forward the first appearance of King Edward, who appears bare chested and bare footed (mention of Mistress Shore was one of many cuts, so this lack of costume does the work of painting the king as debauched). He is barren of authority, and can command only a show of amity between his railing peers (2.1). His brothers are suited and formal, with Richard carrying the extra load of a large leather patch for his hump, a steel prosthetic stump and a caliper to complete the cripple look. Despite these encumbrances, Richard is still nimble enough to drop a powder in Edward’s glass while his face is turned, and he whispers slanders in his ear about their brother, George, reinforcing the wizard’s prophecies. Edward sickens and George is conveyed to the Tower, both brothers helped to an early grave. Richard is already finding his range, and fitting the means of murder to the occasion. Here he is a master of the more subtle poison, both literal and figurative; later he will enjoy the more direct, neck-breaking method as he deals with the murderers he’s employed to do his business.
Richard produces a comedy bunch of plastic red and yellow flowers with which to woo Lady Anne (almost the only colour in the design, apart from the red leather gloves worn by Buckingham and the gallons of blood that variously oozed, dripped and spurted from a wide range of wounds), and offers them over her dead father-in-law’s corpse. He leans in and I’m sure he licked his lips as he promised to wet the grave with his “repentant tears” (1.2.224).
With Lady Anne gone, the corpse is kept on stage a little longer, so that Richard can show just how much he respects the dead as well as the living: once he’s flipped the body bag off the gurney, he can walk up and down and stamp on the “bleeding witness of her hatred” (1.2.243). Most men, having achieved such a conquest, might knock back a beer to celebrate. Richard, as innovative in romance as he is in evil, prefers to desecrate the dead.
He moves smoothly from his beguiling tête-à-tête with Anne to the court, where he is this time in accusatory mood (1.3.51–53):
Cannot a plain man live, and think no harm,
But thus his simple truth must be abused
With silken, sly, insinuating Jacks?
Instead of asking where this plain man might be found, Grey falls into Richard’s verbal trap, and is immediately exposed as one of those “insinuating Jacks”.
This is perhaps the only scene in which Richard’s entry is not the most dramatic. Tony Bell traded in his sparkler for the rather more regal black formalwear of a Victorian dowager queen and surprises the assembled peers with her unauthorized return from exile. Queen Margaret takes a knife and cuts her own hand, bleeding into a bowl, which she carries about the stage, cursing and then flicking blood in the faces of the court.
Royal blood or its absence today excites only a few monarchists, who might fret over Kate’s apparent lack of the appropriate red stuff. It was of course taken very seriously in the fifteenth century, and so it was natural in this production that when the king refers to the apparent reconciliations at the opening of 2.1 as a “pleasing cordial” (2.1.41), this phrase is interpreted literally. At the beginning of the scene, the nobles line up and roll up their right sleeves, in preparation for a little controlled bloodletting by syringe. (Poor Richard has no left hand with which to roll his sleeve, but he manages.) Each noble then has a test tube of his own blood to offer to his erstwhile adversary, who drinks it down in a show of friendship.
Edward’s “Who spoke of brotherhood?” (2.1.109) reminded me of the moving conclusion to Errors, when the two pairs of brothers are reunited after long separation. Edward sickens again, and leaves the stage, leaving his crown behind. Richard reaches for it, looks up at us, and decides against it. By now the body bag containing Clarence is on stage, and, as is his usual custom, Richard gives it a savage kick. Edward makes one final unscripted appearance for a spectacular death scene. Lying horizontal on the trolley, he vomits a geyser of red blood, and then expires.
Of course, the moment of death is only an instant, and however dramatic and significant it is far better to have some context, and this production was remarkable in its invention. Given the extra-judicial nature of the trials, there isn’t much tension to be found there. Richard’s “Off with his head!” (3.4.75) is all it takes to condemn Hastings, whose depth of insight into human character has only just been made apparent: “I know he loves me well” (3.4.14).
The men in white coats gather round in a circle, sticks in hand, marking the beat of death to the rapidly increasing heartbeat of the miserable Hastings. In a lesser production, an unconvincing melee would have followed as they all fell on the victim, but here, on an instant, they all drop their sticks in anticipation of the death blow.
Sir Richard Ratcliffe, loyal to Richard to the end, is, if anything, more chilling in his three-piece suit and watch chain than are the masked butchers. There is no mistaking their capacity for destruction, but Ratcliffe looks as respectable as a banker in an earlier age (strange to think of 2006 as a time of innocence, when left-wing — left-wing! — politicians could still heap praise upon that profession). Each time an execution takes place, he’s there on the sidelines, in his spectacles, calmly holding his watch out as if he’s monitoring train punctuality. He exudes a respect for efficiency that would be laudable in a factory seeking to cut waste, but is deplorable when used to maximize the number of individuals who can be killed in a gas chamber.
Like the gimp scene in Pulp Fiction, where the Bruce Willis character escalates his choice of weapon, for Hastings it will be death by chainsaw. Two gobbets of brain were flung up high and stuck to the plastic curtain (how did they do that?) while there was plenty of blood spatter running down the lower flaps. The musical accompaniment to much of the butchery was a very catchy folkish number, a kind of fa-la-fa-la singsong that would normally celebrate more wholesome activities, such as bringing in the harvest.
Richard’s warlike and autocratic nature is epitomized in a single phrase that sets him apart as a dictator: “Talk’st thou to me of ‘ifs’?” (3.4.74). Compare Touchstone’s line (As You Like It, 5.4.77):
Your ‘if’ is the only peacemaker. Much virtue in ‘if’.
This little word “if” as well as igniting the imagination underpins the whole of science. But, as the enemy of all dogma, it is also antithetical to the religious or totalitarian mind, which cannot bear so much curiosity. Imagine asking a Christian, if they had been at the trial of Jesus, in place of Pilate, what would they have done?
After the interval, on the way back down into the stalls, we were all bustling down the stairs when all of a sudden we came upon one of the butchers, standing in a corner with his stick, encouraging us to get back to our seats.
The second half kicked off with a rabble-rousing electric guitar and Tony Bell reprising his evangelical Pinch as a John Bull character leading the London mob.
Catesby is in cahoots with Buckingham to fool the mayor into thinking that Richard is reluctant to be king. See how he prays, how hard it is to “draw him from his holy exercise” (3.7.63)? On the word “holy” he notices and picks up the chainsaw that has been left lying around. After all, you never know when next it might be needed. Buckingham’s speech to the mayor refers to Richard’s “devotion and right Christian zeal” (3.7.102) and I’m sure Richard Clothier fluttered his eyelashes at this point, as if he were a coy Marilyn Munro.
He is finally tempted to venture into the street, persuaded by the enthusiastic Catesby and Buckingham but the people are far from united: on the line — “I am unfit for state and majesty” (3.7.204) — Richard pushes down a man in the crowd who has remained standing while others kneeled before him.
By now, the body count is already quite high, although the heap of dead is low enough for Richard to walk over the bodies (in their body bags). I think he did this while the ensemble processed, singing Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus Dominus Deus Sabaoth, one of the parts of the Requiem mass.
Next in line is his wife. He holds the sickening Anne in a tight embrace, and, after squeezing the last breath of life out of her, he tries to pull the wedding ring from her finger. Having only one hand makes this simple task rather difficult, but we can rely on the resourceful Richard to come up with a solution: he bites off the finger, and, with it still in his mouth and smiling as best he can, he comes forward to the edge of the stage to show us the severed digit.
Given the bloodshed, Richard’s petulant rebuke to Buckingham — “I am not in the vein” (4.2.104) — has a gory, literal resonance: with him around, it is indeed hard for anyone to keep blood in their veins. What he means, of course, is that he’s not in the mood to satisfy Buckingham’s demands, a blunder of catastrophic proportions and quite uncharacteristic of the machiavellian schemer who has so far barely put a foot wrong. Richard Clothier catches this incipient change into childish malevolence wonderfully, sitting twisted on the throne like a little boy in a chair that’s too big for him. As soon as Richard is crowned he begins to lose his devilish intelligence and to experience something altogether new and disastrous: fear.
There are no women in Propeller, and there are no child actors in this production either: the children of Edward and Clarence are represented by puppets, which adds another eerie veneer to the production. This choice allows a particularly macabre piece of stage business, when a large fluid-filled glass jar of the kind that sits on the shelves of museums of medicine is brought to front of stage. Inside are jammed the two heads of the princes, and there it sits, the dead dolls’ open eyes staring out at us. Far more ghastly than any realistic prop or CGI effect.
In the programme notes, Roger Warren (who adapted the text with Edward Hall) describes how Elizabeth, in the long scene 4.4, is “a tougher opponent than Anne had been”. Richard is meeting his match in wit as he will soon meet his match in arms, and he senses that he is losing the plot. Towards the end of their exchange, on the line — “Be the attorney of my love to her” (4.4.425) — he lengthens and draws out the final syllable in a cry of frustration and desperation. Everything rests on a marriage that is looking less and less likely. With the final phrase of the scene — “The rest march on with me” (4.4.555) — Richard, suddenly alone on stage, looks around and sees that there is no one left to follow him. As his powers of persuasion desert him, so too does it become apparent that he has few remaining allies.
We can hardly feel sorry for him, of course, since he is largely responsible for this depopulation. Buckingham faces a gruesome death, with a kind of mini sickle inserted just below his belly button and then lifted up so his intestines are scooped out. This gives Chris Myles the delicate job of carrying his guts on stage when he appears in Richard’s dream, without them slipping through his fingers like a string of slimy sausages.
In contrast to the black dress of Richard (he’s a bad man) and the black dress of the women (widowed by the bad man), Richmond appears dressed in a white suit and piously fondling a cross (he’s the father of the Tudor dynasty, so he must be the goodie). Separated by their dreams, Richard and Richmond sit back to back on the trolley, with the body bags
lined up behind them, ready to open their contents. In sleep, they each come face to face with the murdered ranks, Richard to be discouraged and Richmond encouraged. The battle follows and Richard faces Richmond in life. Already badly injured, he’s exhausted, having killed five Richmonds, and is slumped in a heap, a pathetic end. The real Richmond, holding a cross in one hand and a gun in the other, finishes him off from a distance with a single shot. Stanley’s “Courageous Richmond” (5.3.370) is the first piece of Tudor propaganda. Richmond is hardly heroic, and we have a glimpse of what his rule will entail. On the penultimate line — “Now civil wounds are stopped” (5.3.407) — Richard’s body twitches, the bloody dog is not quite dead, and Richmond has to shoot him a second time.
The smell of gunpowder reached Row B and so ended a magnificent day in the theatre.
(The verse speaking throughout was tremendous and the attention to detail impeccable. One example: although the line — “False to his children and his wife’s allies” (5.1.15) — is not a pure iambic pentameter (the initial foot is reversed to stress the first and most important word), Chris Myles picked up the iambic rhythm from the second foot and took it to the line’s end, stressing “allies” on the second syllable.)