What’s the etiquette in saying there’s a Shakespeare play you don’t like? Is it an admission of philistine tendencies? Will I still be allowed to hang out in polite circles and discuss ‘the-at-re’? Thankfully public opinion and I parted ways some time ago so let’s just say it: I really don’t like Shakespeare’s ‘Richard III’.
‘Richard III’ is the Elizabethan equivalent of asking Tony Abbott’s speechwriters to write a play about Julia Gillard. Take a smattering of historical facts and twist them completely with about 90% fiction added to paint everyone as the hapless victims of a tyrant.
Now I don’t need a play to be true to enjoy it but with ‘Richard III’ Shakespeare had to paint Richard, Duke of Gloucester in such a way that dramatically the play works on stage about as much as Tony Abbott looks good in speedos. Consider his tactics (Richard, not Abbott): he announces himself as the quintessential Machiavellian villain from the outset, goes about publicly killing everyone who stands between him and the crown and then convinces the widows of those he has slaughtered to marry him, even though they are repulsed by him and they know he is going to kill them too. He kills children, women, men, family- gosh- he kills everyone he can (note- he does not have the integrity to do it himself but sends others to do the dirty work) and it leaves us with one conclusion. The entire naïve clan of York are some of the stupidest people you can find on a stage and I don’t buy it. I don’t buy that if a man painted as ugly as Richard murdered my beloved husband that I would marry him. I don’t buy that if he killed my sons and my brother that I would give him my daughter's hand in marriage.
Oh yes, I know it’s Shakespeare but even his other villains had charm. Iago and Edmund were silver-tongued foxes and Macbeth was a brave warrior seduced by ambition. Richard is one ugly humpbacked mangled coward who is as sincere as an apology from Alan Jones. Come on. The play is a political vehicle that is a director’s nightmare to convince an audience that this is nothing but pure melodrama. There’s little tension because there’s no subtext, no stakes and the best you can do is find a few moments of dramatic irony between Richard and audience and play with a few technical elements of the stage and space.
So it was probably a bold choice of mine to go and see the Genesian’s ‘Richard III’ when I’ve already dismissed the play before I even see it. But I do recognise that not everyone thinks the same as me (I accept there are bound to be people who think Tony Abbott does look good in speedos) and that being the case, let me set about trying to dissect this show.
Director Gary Dooley has done some smart things in this space to try to breathe life into ‘Richard III’. I liked the bookends of the play- Richard’s (Roger Gimblett) snap control of all the players at the start, clearly the master of ceremonies or the puppeteer of action contrasted to Richmond (Patrick Magee) at the end. The ending was also a great moment in the play (no- I’m not being facetious when I say that). Dooley has cleverly shown Richmond as perhaps not the hero of the new age but as the next potential tyrant in his demands for ‘amen’ and wielding the gun at those surrounding him in his success. It was one of those times my cynicism waned and I took notice of what Dooley was saying about these characters. Well played.
The Genesian stage is very narrow but the entrances and exits were another smart choice by Dooley in coming through the audience and being able to manipulate the design of the stage to transform the needs of each scene by moving portable steps to create new shapes and functions. Dooley also used humour in showing how quickly leadership turned and changed through the removable banners of Houses.
I have much admiration for Dooley in what he has tried to achieve in his interpretation of ‘Richard III’- the lovely juxtaposition of the sorrowful singing to hail in each victor; the use of Timothy M. Carter’s lighting in heightening the bloodlust of Richard and the escalation of violence and especially during the scenes involving the ghostly apparitions of Richard’s victims and kudos to costume designers Susan Carveth and Fiona Barry for capturing character, status and the era of the mid-20th century setting of Dooley’s production. I enjoyed the choice of playing Buckingham (Dominic McDonald) as a foppish follower of whatever served him best and of overcoming the difficulty of bringing the young princes on stage through transforming them into faceless puppets, somewhat apt if we are view them as Richard does.
Special mentions to the performers too, who for the most part were very strong. Roger Gimblett was especially impressive as was Magee’s Richmond and John Willis-Richards’ camp and high energy portrayals if we are trying for humour in interpretation. But most of all, it was the women who stood out for me in attempting to bring some tension into their dilemmas, especially as their characters must transition quickly from despising Richard to giving into his whims and desires- Jenny Jacobs (Duchess of York), Elizabeth MacGregor (Queen Elizabeth) and most of all Hailey McQueen (Lady Anne).
I am confident that if you like this play, you’ll like this production. And if you don’t like ‘Richard III’, this won’t make you fall in love with it but it will give you plenty of moments you can appreciate.
And let’s never talk of Abbott in those speedos again.