Tim Hochstrasser reviews Headlong’s new production of William Shakespeare’s Richard III now playing at the newly restored Alexandra Palace Theatre.
Alexandra Palace Theatre
14 March 2019
This is the first full run of a play at the re-opened Alexandra Palace which has been closed to theatre for eighty years. The space deserves a full review to itself, but suffice to say that this really is an exciting new venue, with shabby-chic grandeur in the spirit of Wilton’s but on a much larger scale, with generous sightlines, a huge stage, comfortable seats, and great potential flexibility of use. The only outstanding query is over transport accessibility, which is largely outside the management’s control.
This production of Shakespeare’s Richard III is a collaborative venture with several partners (Headlong, Bristol Old Vic, Royal and Derngate, and the Oxford Playhouse). It has many interesting features to recommend it, but does not consistently rise to be more than the sum of its parts. Director John Haidar has played it fairly straight overall, though with some useful tweaks to the text. The set pieces were thoughtfully put together with a sensitive awareness of the distinctive opportunities of the space, but the intimate scenes were less well configured. And on the creative side, there were many interesting ideas and devices but in some respects they lacked harmonious integration.
It was an intriguing idea to begin with the murder of King Henry VI, taken from Shakespeare’s previous play in his Wars of the Roses sequence. Rather than beginning with ‘Now is the winter of our discontent’, which for all of its verbal display is an abrupt and uninformative start, it was clearly helpful for the audience to have the background sketched in, and a schema of murder, violence and ghostly hauntings established immediately. The scenes of rival factions at the court of Edward IV certainly made a lot more sense than is usual.
Similarly effective and imaginative was the scene in which Buckingham introduces a pseudo-bashful Richard to the citizens of London. It was very well worked through by stationing the several of the actors in the huge auditorium. Haidar has clearly put a lot of thought into the themes of collective action that can be glimpsed continuously through the action. Perhaps most notable was the gradual accretion of ghosts throughout the play all connected to the initial murder of Henry which set the tone for a very fine accumulation of them all on the night before Bosworth. But the relationships between Richard and his collaborators were less well worked through. We needed more of a sense of the seductive charm Richard brings to bear on them together with a sense of their own calculations, frequently naïve, of how they may be able to use Richard for their own purposes, before they themselves get used and dispatched. The interstices of court faction need to be explored more thoroughly as a way into the characters themselves.
Another way of saying this is that Richard III the character therefore needs remarkable insinuating grace and sarcastic wit as well as sudden random violence. The gruesome lashing out was well established in a particularly brutal dispatch of Lord, or in this case, Lady Hastings, and the physical twistedness of the character was excellently sustained with admirable stamina. But his more delicate sides were underplayed. You also need a sense of the self-loathing of the character or some sense of the inner source of the outer evil. This integration of aspects was not fully achieved in Tom Mothersdale‘s portrayal. He was at his best in the scenes of cruelty and battle (where the work of movement director Georgina Lamb should be recognised), but elsewhere there was more than a touch of Mr Bean/Blackadder which drained away the majesty of malice that needs often to be looming out over the edge of the stage towards the audience.
The other actors offered a mixture of qualities and interpretations. Perhaps the plaudits best belong to Eileen Nicholas as the Duchess of York and to Stefan Adegbola as Buckingham. The feisty confrontations between mother and son really had an edge to them and a proper sense of a contest, whereas Richard won too easily when facing Leila Mimmack’s Lady Anne, who was not always audible, in an early scene that really should crackle with tension. Adegbola’s Buckingham was a very plausible corporate smooth operator, a suitable foil to Mothersdale for much of the action they share; though he could perhaps have done more to register his shock and dismay when Richard turns out no longer to be ‘in the giving vein.’ Tom Kanji had some good and contrasted moments too as the doomed Duke of Clarence and as the ingratiating executioner, Catesby.
Designer Chiara Stephenson had come up with a set which emphasised mirrors, in the form of a semi-circle of swivelling glass panes. This was used to good effect both for general access and for back-lit reveals in the final scenes. It also legitimately picked up on what is a major theme of the play’s language which is full of references to a false glass, broken glass and cracked mirrors. The sound and lighting designers had come up with useful devices to mark each murder, and the contemporary costumes reflected the darkness of hue and tone in the production with the splashes of colour all the more telling for their scarcity. The physical crown was used to good effect as both symbol and tantalising aspiration at different points in the action. There was a poignant and catchy setting of the Te Deum for the coronation scene which gave a moment of velvety tonal repose before the headlong rush to the finish.
There was therefore much to admire at different points in this production, which deserves to attract audiences as it tours, and provides a very sound introduction to this unique play for those who have not seen it before. But this is a frequently produced drama, and against the very best examples of recent years – including the outstanding recent production with Ralph Fiennes at the Almeida – it does not stand out.
Until 31 March 2019