I am on public record in regards to my feelings towards Shakespeare’s ‘Richard III’. It’s my least favourite of his plays. I find it torturous to watch. I can’t believe this despicable villain, without redemption, crippled, ‘unfinished’, obvious. I can’t believe that a) he has killed anyone on the battlefield b) could manipulate any woman to marry him and c) that anyone would be stupid enough to believe his blatant lies. He is unforgivable and Shakespeare wrote him to appease the powers at the time and yet, as a writer, he could not reconcile what is recorded in history in regards to Richard’s achievements and still denounce him to the serving Queen. The play is propaganda that fails to offer dimensions to its antagonist, Richard III, because its intentions can’t serve both masters- literary and political. Shakespeare chose the latter and the play suffers, as do I, for it. Yes- there are some witty lines but as a narrative, it’s got more holes than a pre-election Liberal Party promise.
And it was in that moment, watching the Ensemble Theatre’s production of ‘Richard III’, that I had an epiphany. People can be that stupid, otherwise how do I explain the election of our current Government? To believe lies in the face of contrary evidence, to sideline blame, to be seduced by propaganda? Is that not the history of politics? What if Richard were Putin? Or what if Richard was a conglomerate of the Liberal Party leadership, if Birmingham was Rupert Murdoch, if Edward was Malcolm Turnbull and if every other victim, sometimes of their own stupidity, was, in fact, us- the electorate…well, I have a newfound respect for this play that didn’t exist before because we are living it, right now. We are that stupid, or that complacent, or that naïve.
This play is not a history play- not really. This play is a political play, taken to extreme. Director (and lead), Mark Kilmurry tries to examine that in his production in a much more arts based concept that my imagined version. In his concept Kilmurry asks, ‘What if the Arts were banished, illegal?’ What if the expression of our creativity, when not used for pro-government propaganda, had to take place in abandoned underground settings like basements or derelict theatre dressing rooms? It’s not that much of a stretch, given the danger the creative artist is perceived to be by regimes. Extreme, sure, but consider this, how much longer will the ABC survive unless it’s forced to be more Murdoch in its unwavering support of party politics?
I don’t know that I would have picked ‘Richard III’ to showcase this concept. Understanding the play better doesn’t mean that I like it any more than I did before. But the fact that this play is political gives it some sway in realising Kilmurry’s ideas. I wish that this little band of rebels, performing outlawed theatre in the dark, dank underground, watched each other as they were ‘offstage’ so that I could feel more of the tension in performing illegal art. But what I did enjoy was the gritty realness, the raw expression of the play. Kilmurry’s Richard is stripped bare and the artifice is made more real for it.
The performances are very strong. Kilmurry’s achievement in physicality in realising Richard is enough to make me want to send him on a yoga retreat post show. Matt Edgerton also showcases a variety of characters with great physical and vocal skill- each different and well-defined. Amy Mathews displays real depth of emotion, Danielle Carter's innocence and grief fill the stage with energy, Toni Scanlan’s skill in comedy is contrasted to her fine abilities conveying the tension of the drama and Patrick Dickson’s Buckingham captures his flighty conjoining with whatever power is greater at the time.
Nicholas Higgins’ lighting design, enhanced by the set, conveys the damp derelict world of the play and its players, with danger ever present in the play and outside its doors. This is a good production of a problematic play. It’s engaging and well-executed. Kilmurry finds the comedy in the words and actions which help redeem the play’s narrative flaws. This ‘Richard III’ is conjured for this moment only, piecemeal in protest, and then disappears, much like its characters.
Catch it as it gasps its last breath at Riverside this week if you can.