A grisly end which will come back to haunt - Richard of Gloucester (Tom Mothersdale) gloats over the remains of Henry VI (John Sackville). Pictures: Marc Brenner

Richard III

The Royal & Derngate, Northampton


In the landmark television series The White Queen, Richard III emerges rather well. Too young to serve his father, Richard Duke of York, he becomes the military and administrative mainstay of his eldest brother, Edward IV.

He emerges as competent rather than villainous, and in his twenties a remarkably capable figure in the administration of the North, where he grew up. The deaths of the young princes are laid at the feet of the Lancastrians: not Richmond himself, but his adherents, above all his mother, Margaret Beauchamp.

That sounds a bit far-fetched, though there are those who firmly uphold the view. One senses, maybe just in imagination, the potential for a good king, not merely a usurper. The 1480s and what followed were a period of extraordinary growth, especially in trade and finance, across Europe. Might Richard have presided over an inspired, forward-looking regime?

Shakespeare, of course, is having no truck with any of that. And in this vivid co-production between the Derngate’s risk-taking ‘Made in Northampton’ series and the vital Headlong Theatre Company, Tom Mothersdale, like Olivier, Sher and McKellen before him, has a whale of a time depicting Richard as a classic baddie. Every aspect of his deformation nettles him. He is a shrunken, distorted, distempered, thoroughly nasty piece of work, who by evil machination amasses unfettered power and uses all his vicious devices to exercise it in the face of any opposition, or potential opponent.

His Richard achieves this, above, all by expansive, elaborate, consistent and cunning use of the visual. Richard’s physical appearance, as he himself insists from the very outset, underscores his warped mind. One whole leg is wrapped around with a lengthy, metallic caliper: as a result, every step he takes is painful: the twisted knee bends low, as if he is doing an ironic curtsy.  

He is shrunken, his mobility curtailed, his outward freedoms mercilessly cramped. He cannot caper, even in his splendidly nasty (though perhaps not nasty enough) dealings with the princes, Edward and Richard, the younger of whom (Reuben Baines) has a pert, forthright, disturbingly royal diction which renders him a match for his ironical uncle.


Giving as good as she gets - Leila Mimmack as Lady Anne with the lame, hunched Richard

Rather, Gloucester has the ugly limp of a particularly unpleasant, curvaceous spider. His back is twisted enough, if not exactly hunched (till he aggressively displays it). Any mirror (and all the backstage entrances are swinging mirrors) will tell him that. A learned article in the programme uncovers a host of allusions to mirrors, but only here and there do they imprint themselves on the text, as in the famous couplet ‘Shine out, fair sun, till I have bought a glass / That I may see my shadow as I pass’. It’s delivered rearstage, by one of those doors, logically enough; but as a result, may not impact quite as much as it might.

When Richard’s voice is raised to the point of ranting, as in his self-justifying explosion just before the final battle near Leicester (hence his rediscovered body, extracted from monastic ruins, is now entombed there), or when he consciously drops his voice, especially in his marvellous, wickedly contrived asides to the audience, matched by splendid winks, sneers and mock-snivels. It’s these conscious effects, these wonderful expressions of confidential slyness, which render Mothersdale’s performance a particular, intimate success - rather than when he deploys his normal speaking voice, which, at times, initially certainly, comes across as a fraction light.

But it’s an immensely adroit, beautifully sarcastic and horribly slinky performance, both from Mothersdale, a master of the sly, deceptive, abusive and vindictive, and from Director John Haidar, manoeuvring his lead actor, by means of deeply unpleasant entrances and exits, and a distinctive use of pacing that at times can be shivering.

Richard’s wonderfully sarcastic soliloquy on the departure of Lady Anne was just a foretaste of many haunting triumphs in this production. And with Richard, it’s crucially important to remember he was scrupulously loyal, in his teens and his twenties, to brother King Edward.  

Did all these flagrant and masterfully enacted acrobatics have a slight drawback? Only that at times that they are so mesmerising they distract, occasionally, from an otherwise nicely and sharply delivered text.

Buckingham, by contrast, is the opposite of acrobatic. Stefan Adegbola plays him as a big presence yet a pretty stolid, even stiff, figure. But the character is a noble and eloquent one. Up to a certain point, he seems to connive with Richard for pretty respectable motives. He acts as intermediary, because he believes the usurpation to be both justifiable and legal. His speech to the London populace was rather finely contrived and distinguishedly enunciated.

When he finally draws the line at agreeing with Richard to kill the princes, it is in line with the character Adegbola paints. And when he is finally dispatched, we should remember it is because he leads a rebellion against Richard, shortly before Richmond’s, and not out of sheer revenge or malice.

While Buckingham’s quality of speaking was one of his best assets, on the same subject three other parts spring to mind. One is Eileen Nicholas, who managed to bring to the Duchess of York (wife of the most significant member of the family to that date, Richard of York, and mother of the Yorkist threesome, as also of the young Edmund, Duke of Rutland, executed after the Battle of Wakefield) a vital and lucid presence. Another was Tom Kanji, who not only offered the most elegant and articulate speaking of all as Clarence (an outrageous, doubly disloyal turncoat, not the saintly figure Shakespeare paints him as); and finally, Henry Tudor (Caleb Roberts), who despite being reduced to a smallish part more or less wrapping the story up, was notably well spoken, presiding over the (here, modified) dream sequence where Richard is agonised by the ghosts of his many victims.

Indeed when Kanji reappears as Richard’s adjutant Catesby, he gives us a model of how Shakespeare may be declaimed in a small or medium house without overbearing. He was in a sense an exemplar. Furthermore, Haidar makes use of two female actors in contrasting roles. Thus, before appearing as the put-upon Norfolk, Leila Mimmack gives Richard as good as she gets as Lady Anne. You would think from the play that she is a mere pawn in Richard’s latest plotting. But how inaccurate. Having admittedly won Anne round to the Yorkist side after her spouse Edward, the Lancastrian Prince of Wales, is despatched at Tewkesbury, Neville’s daughter Anne marries Richard in 1472 and their marriage is by no means acrimonious. She bears him a son soon, or shortly, after, and their marriage endures, possibly contentedly, ten years or more.

The other girl-plays-boy role came from Heledd Gwynn. Rapidly despatched as the hapless Hastings, Lord of the Council, and the first of Richard’s victims here, she reappears as Ratcliffe, Richard’s no. 2 henchman. She manages to create a figure of marked unpleasantness not least by her slim presence – she herself becomes a sinister acolyte, a kind of undamaged mirror of her master’s wishes, but armed with a handgun she becomes his unblenching executioner.


Ancestor of the Tudors - Derbhle Crotty as a forceful Queen Elizabeth Woodville

It’s all the nastier a performance because of her lack of compunction. Beautifully underplayed, Ratcliffe emerged, a bit like Macbeth’s maitre domo Seyton, as one of the most quietly dangerous of the regime’s upholders. She creates the feeling that morality is no matter: nor even orders. She seems to have an unleashed ruthlessness all her own.

There were other capably taken roles: Derbhle Crotty’s Elizabeth Woodville, for instance, whose willingness to stand up to Richard supplies some key moments in the growing drama; or Michael Matus’s bluff King Edward, who makes the most of designer Chiara Stephenson’s sensibly employed upper level to preside over jovial celebrations - before collapsing dramatically midstage.

But the most interesting conceit of Haidar’s production was the use he makes of Henry VI (John Sackville, perceptively and eerily played). We begin with lines from (what is, I take it) Henry VI, Part 3. Henry is duly despatched by Richard, a detail which may be invented. And then he takes up the role of a kind of Hamlet’s Ghost. As each horrifying death is perpetrated, Henry appears like a kind of Sexton to gather up and embrace, possibly bless, the dead victim. Somehow, the House of Lancaster becomes a kind of conscience of the whole production, a pointing finger gathering both the Lancastrians and Yorkists (the boys) and indeed the neutrals in this ghastly pile-up of corpses.

And it yields us the most potent image of the conclusion. For after all the appeals for a horse have died down and Richard is bloodily despatched, Henry VI reappears to escort his risen being to whatever dark, or enlightened, underworld awaits it. It is Richard’s death, after all, which opens the door to the Tudor Rose, and the merging of the two houses. Brought together in this final affray, the equally damaged pair give us a subtle vision of the future: a glimpse, perhaps, that the Wars of the Roses are a thing of the past. To 25-05-19

Roderic Dunnett


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