Richard III, one of Shakespeare’s darkest plays, is fully embraced by this production and, since the discovery of Richard’s remains, the production can boast impressive claims. They know exactly what he looked like and how many blows it took to kill him, meaning their Richard is rooted in historical accuracy. This being so, however, you have to wonder why this performance sometimes misses the mark.
The first, and only real, start to this article has to concern Ian Bartholomew as Richard, his performance being the defining action of the play. Following rave reviews for ‘The Resistible of Arturo Ui’ it is hard to see where many critics will find fault. Bartholomew gives Richard a vile impulsiveness that is infective. You are repulsed by him from the start and Bartholomew builds on this by adding an arrogant, comedic trait which feels oddly appropriate. The sly nods and raised eyebrows lift the piece nicely, although at times feels a bit contrived as the acting borders unsteadily between Shakespearean antagonist and pantomime villain. Credit also need to be given to Natalie Burt as Lady Anne, a character for whom the weight of a despotic world is clearly visible upon her shoulders. You can’t help but feel an inevitable despair for Anne’s trails and woes at the hands of her murderous husband.
There are also other positives: the ingenious use of projections injects substantial dramatic tension. The projects show the audience the ghostly scare of drowned Clarence, leaving them brutally affected, and the cinematic waving of flags which frame the cries of ‘Salve Rex Gloriae’. Whilst trying not to spoil too much, the projection is intensely imaginative giving Shakespeare’s more confusing scenes clarity and stimulating an active response in the audience.
So where does it all go wrong? To start, you need such plays to hit the ground running but both acts begin somewhat laboriously, weighted down in political debate, leaving the audience waiting for something to draw their attention. Whilst the actors are somewhat constrained by the text, the fault has to lie with director Loveday Ingram. Her decisions throughout, specifically concerning costume, alienate the audience. Symbolic or not, the costume is confusing, sporadic and, in some cases, outright bizarre. Through the course of the story the audience is treated to grey suits, special force riot gear and hoodies, which, combined with a grey backdrop, cause certain actors to become rather washed out. For a play which boasts an impressively large amount of characters (most of which are likely to be killed) the audience needs something absolute to hold onto. Nearly all actors multi-roling after their deaths, leading to further confusion and, in a few instances, cause the audience to ask: ‘Are you still dead?’ All these issues circle around one glaring problem: the creative direction is messy. There is nothing definitive and you are left wondering by the end what it all meant.
Ultimately, the play does have flaws which will irk you: the costumes, the over dramatics of actors, the blend of contemporary and classical design. Yet the projections give, even non-Shakespearean lovers, give the piece enough substantial visual spectacle to enjoy. In the end the production is promising, but you are left wondering if more time had been devoted in creating a unified theme, could it have been spectacular?
Richard III is running at the Nottingham Playhouse until Saturday 16th November.