Richard III, Arcola Theatre

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As the audience enters, Richard sits at a pub table on an otherwise bare stage. It’s impossible not to watch him until the house lights dim, and this opening sets the tone for the two and a half hours to come. With generically modern costume and no clear concept, Mehmet Ergen’s interpretation employs a light touch on the design elements. However his focus on the text and story is on point, making this an easy to follow and engaging production. Staged in the Arcola’s main house where the audience closes in on three sides of the stage, this is the sort of space that brings out the best in Shakespeare’s energy and language.

Greg Hicks’ serpentine Richard with a paralysed arm and weak leg dragged behind him by a chain evokes Jacob Marley from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. But he is no pantomime villain. He’s a pathological liar and manipulator that wholly convinces the other characters that his murders and marriages are in their best interest. Think Dexter, or Hanibal Lector, or any other serial killer who’s news coverage consists of a little old lady neighbour saying, “But he was just so LOVELY! He always offered to wash my car/mow my lawn/carry my shopping. The screaming from his basement was a bit strange, but he’s a charming young man so I never questioned it.”

Combined with the cold blooded utterances of his true intentions to the audience and unfettered rage when he is crossed, this Richard is contemporary, three-dimensional, and every line meets modern standards of a naturalistic performance of a psychopath. Still  honouring the verse, it trips lightly off the tongue with vivacity and conviction.

It’s tough for the rest of the cast to match Hicks’ detail of characterisation, but there are no weak performances. Sara Powell as a despairing Queen Elizabeth is riveting as Richard wears down her resolve to not let him near her daughter, her only surviving family member. Matthew Sim as Catesby matches Hicks in ruthlessness, and his mechanical coldness is a compelling contrast to Richard’s charisma. He’s moulded in similar shape to an action film baddy.

The theatre’s support beams from its past life as a paint factory are extended by an industrial walkway that the cast occasionally prowl. As well as creating an additional visual level, this staging choice is threatening and sinister to those below it. Ergen uses it too sparingly though, especially with his decent-sized cast that have the potential to overwhelm the space in battle scenes. Instead, they are entirely kept off-stage, which diminishes their power and the significance of Richmond’s victory. Moroccan lamps suspended from the ceiling add colour and some indication of place, but their use, along with the middle eastern robes that some characters wear, is also too sparse of an aesthetic to have much impact.

Though Hicks’ Richard is a barnstormer backed up by a strong ensemble cast, the vague concept is distracting in its lack of clarity or justification. Ergen has obvious skill in coaxing exceptional performances from his cast whilst showcasing Shakespeare’s story, but neglected to look at the details of the entire theatrical picture.

Richard III runs through 10 June.

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