Richard III, Alexandra Palace

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by Louis Train

There’s an annoying trend among artists to draw explicit parallels between historical texts and the present day, tossing around words like ‘prescient’ and ‘timely’, and finding hints of Brexit in Arthur Miller plays like religious fanatics spotting the face of Jesus on toast. That’s not to say, however, that we can’t find broad reflections of our world in old stories: people are still people, just as interesting, lovely, and ugly as they ever have been.

Richard III is one of those plays that folks want to call timely, even though, in almost every respect, the character of Richard has no modern parallel. He is an impossibly ugly man, inside and out, feared as much for his unsightly hunchback as for his blind ambition. There is nothing he won’t do to become King of England, including all sorts of fratricide, patricide, and whatever you call killing nephews. There are plenty of ambitious people in the world today, many of them quite ruthless, but none, I think, so one-dimensionally wicked as the last ruler of the Plantagenet dynasty. Enlightened folks – you and I, for example – appreciate the environmental and societal factors that shape a person’s character; in the 21st century, there are no evil people, only broken systems.

The problem of Richard III is further complicated by the fact that, in some respects, King Dick is an underdog: physically disabled, and haunted by a lifetime at war, he only (mostly) punches up, at those aristocrats who, by merit of birth order alone, stand, unjustified, in positions of power. Consequently, to the modern viewer, Richard is a murderously understandable underdog psychopath monster. A tad incoherent.

Director John Haidar and the folks at Headlong Theatre have embraced the chaos of Richard III in the 21st century in a riveting and aesthetically smashing production, up at the newly refurbed theatre in the Alexandra Palace.

The first thing you notice about this production is how quickly the actors speak and move. I know that sounds like a sophomoric observation, but even in the most dramatic of soliloquies, one can imagine the director urging his cast to resist the traditional anguished pause. A striking and petite set by designer Chiara Stephenson has the dual effect of allowing for lightning-fast scene changes and creating a sense of claustrophobia, as if the walls of Richard’s life are closing in on him. Indeed, the use of mirrors in the set, as looking glasses, walls, doors, and windows into Richard’s guilty conscience make the stage seem both infinite and infinitely small, as if the world beyond is just more of the same quick, loud madness.

At the centre of the chaos stands, hunched, Tom Mothersdale, in the starring role, and what a star indeed. Mothersdale is not only utterly convincing as the wretched man who will be king, he is also endlessly energetic, frenetic, as if he has sensed, at last, that his moment has arrived. He communicates with every gesture not only Richard’s obvious intelligence and ruthlessness, but also a kinetically-charged sense of desperation. Great interpretations in the past have often rendered Richard as inert or slow-moving, as if to suggest that the real action is going on in his head. But Mothersdale’s Richard is brilliant, wicked, and desperate consistently inside and out.

Forgive me for blending my Shakespeares, but when I try to summarise Headlong’s Richard III, the phrase that comes to mind is pure sound and fury. And wicked good fun, too.

Richard III runs through 31 March.

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