Richard III, Rosemary Branch Theatre

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Bill Clinton once told Kevin Spacey that 99% of political thriller ‘House of Cards’ is real – a terrifying thought. Whether true or not, Spacey’s character Frank Underwood has clear parallels with Shakespeare’s Richard III what with the former’s ruthless climb to the US presidency. New company Godot’s Watch picked up on the similarity between the two rulers, taking inspiration from the tv series for their small-scale update to Shakespeare’s popular history play. Though the production has some canny choices, the concept comes across as a generic modern-dress adaptation with some pronounced weaknesses.

Rather than making Richard disabled, director Sean Aydon gives him a wine-coloured birthmark that covers half of his face. In a world that now places so much emphasis on bodily perfection, it’s a justified choice – women find him revolting, and the general public would never vote for him. Sam Coulson makes this Richard uncharismatic and bullish; though this works to an extent, it doesn’t convince when Richard woos Lady Anne (Kate Dobson) and what with politicians are judged so harshly on their ability to charm crowds.

A cast of eight take on all parts, meaning that half of them multi-role. Some are more skilled at this than than others, which leads to some confusing and unclear transitions. Sophie Ormond is the strongest as Richard’s young nephew, Prince Edward, and assassin for hire, Tyrell. Of those who have one role, Elena Clements plays Buckingham as a fantastic Nasty Woman. Commendably, there are three men to five women, one of whom is international. Unfortunately, the cast is entirely white and in the same age range.

There are some harsh edits to the script, a few slow transitions and a rushed, stylised ending that is an interesting experiment, but it doesn’t clearly communicate Richard’s agonising and humble defeat. Aydon uses mobile phones to substitute for messengers, which is well timed and surprisingly effective – a clever device. Jack Channer’s lighting switches between brightly coloured LEDs and dim haze – effective at creating a range of moods but occasionally too much for this intimate theatre.

Godot’s Watch and Sean Aydon have a plethora of ideas and confidently experiment within the framework of Shakespeare’s text, but to stay so bound to the script and attempt to marry it with a hyper-specific contemporary context doesn’t always work. The best moments are when they boldly eschew Shakespeare’s prescriptions, but others don’t quite have the shock of their TV inspiration.

Richard III runs through 29 January.

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