Theatre 2019 – Richard III, Royal and Derngate, Northampton

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Saturday, 25th May 2019 – Richard III, Royal and Derngate Theatre, Northampton

Well, that was… interesting. I think that’s the word I’m going to go with. Lynne probably had it best when she said it was very much the ITV version of Richard III. My take was it was Richard III but it wasn’t Shakespeare as we know it. It’s a travelling production, starring Tom Mothersdale in the title role, and it was described as a “revelatory new production” directed by John Haidar. Well, I’d not dispute that claim, necessarily, but I have a suspicion that what it revealed was a director who doesn’t really understand – or like Shakespeare.

A co-production between Headlong, Alexandra Palace and Bristol Old Vic with Royal & Derngate, Northampton and Oxford Playhouse, we saw it in the Royal part of the Royal & Derngate, and it’s a superb space that quite obviously dates from a much earlier incarnation of the theatre. It has a magnificent safety curtain! Anyway, a little research tells me it opened in 1884, and was  designed by C J Phipps who also designed the Theatre Royal Bath, The Lyceum in Edinburgh, Theatre Royal Glasgow and the Grand in Wolverhampton, it’s a Grade II listed building, and Errol Flynn acted there while he was a member of Northampton Repertory Players in the early 1930s.

Anyway, to return to the performance. The 450 seat auditorium was probably half full on a bank holiday weekend Saturday afternoon. That doesn’t necessarily matter, provided the actors are sufficiently committed, and they did seem to be. However, the notice on the wall on the way in sparked some concern and I should probably have been alerted to the potential to be disappointed by the running time, with two sections, the first of 75 minutes and the second and final of 60 minutes.

Oh, and looking at the cast list suggested a small company (fine, I have no problem with multiple roles being played by a small cast – it can work), but then a further casting of the eyes down the page immediately suggested a couple of issues, starting with the absence of Margaret of Anjou. I mean, yes, you can progress the plot without her, but why would you? She has some of the best lines for one thing, and giving those lines to Cecily does not really make sense. However, that’s what the director had opted to do.

The action started, somewhat unexpectedly, in the middle of the closing stages of a different play altogether, with Richard dispatching Henry VI, before abruptly arriving at the actual start of the work we were expecting. From then on it was break-neck speed all the way, so much so that we’d reached the wooing of Ann in less than 15 minutes from curtain up, and it soon became obvious that the director had taken the title literally and was going to concentrate almost exclusively on Richard, and only on Richard. Needless to say the Bishop of Ely and his strawberries had gone missing from this reading. Later we’d discover that Tyrrell had also been excised, as had half of the “dream sequence” with the audience only getting to see Richard’s ghosts and not Henry Tudor’s. In fact by the end you could have been forgiven for wondering who on earth he was and where he’d come from.

Image courtesy of Marc Brenner

It was exhausting for an audience, so heaven knows how much it took out of the actors. Mothersdale, in particular, was pretty much on stage without a break, and as he’d got a brace on his leg that seemed to actually lock into place it cannot have been a comfortable experience. I found myself hoping he had a good physio on hand to straighten him out afterwards. It was a performance of considerable energy, heavier than I would like on the black comedy, bit at least it wasn’t one note and only comic (I’m looking at you, Martin Freeman). I just felt a more subtle reading would have been good, rather than having Richard introduced as an out and out villain from the start, in that “previously in the Plantagenets” opening scene.

Image courtesy of Marc Brenner

Were there things to like? Yes, indeed there were. There was an intensity to the central performance that I liked, and I also liked the general staging, with mostly modern dress, and a series of cathedral-like niches around the back that would eventually turn out to be mirrors/glass doors that Richard was trapped by. It all seemed a bit cliched, while at the same time indulging in novelty for the sake of it, and having a spectral Henry VI painted white and issuing dead characters to him behind the glass doors was just silly (I also kept expecting him to speak in CAPITAL LETTERS but that’s probably Terry Pratchett’s fault). I did wonder afterwards if the production was aimed at those with a short attention span, as a way to try and get them into Shakespeare, although talking to someone who didn’t know the play, and who isn’t a Shakespeare aficionado, he reckoned it dragged and he didn’t understand some of what was going on.

Image courtesy of Marc Brenner

So, in my view a failure, though with some good points. I’m glad I’ve seen it, but it’s not going anywhere near my top 3 (that would be Anthony Sher, Ralph Fiennes, and probably Andrew Jarvis for the English Shakespeare Company back in the day). I think the actors were badly served by the director and his cutting mania. It doesn’t help that we have seen many, many different productions of the play, and thus know it well, but I’d like to get my hands on the playbook they were working from because I’m convinced that there were a number of lines that simply didn’t belong in there at all, and I must admit I’ll be looking out for Haider’s name against any Shakespearean productions, with intent to avoid in future.

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