When the programme notes reference “fake news” spread by “populist duplicitous politicians” you know you’re in for some contemporary political metaphor. Antic Disposition’s Richard III presents a modern dress version of Elizabethan play staged in a Medieval church, but the themes and bite are pure 21st Century. This mixture combines to create something timeless.
Ben Horslen and John Risebero’s production (which opened at Temple Church last night after a tour of UK cathedrals and France) puts the emphasis on clarity and humour, performed in an intimate yet imposing traverse space. Edward IV ascends the throne, his shiny smiley media-friendly family instantly calling to mind to that other glossy first family currently tearing their country apart. The overly-charismatic leaders and wannabe leaders battle and plot, only the faceless grey men revolving around them remaining constant. The king is dead. Long live the king.
Any production of Richard III inevitably succeeds or fails on the strength of its lead actor, and Toby Manley’s affable laughing villain provides a chillingly charismatic Richard. He’s not trying to channel or spoof Donald Trump (for one thing Manley is actually charming, and not orange), but the parallels are clear, and the play is all the better for the subtlety. He is so committed to his beliefs and actions, it’s hard not to be seduced by his boyish pretence at innocence. When the wheels start to come off and the mask slips, it’s terrifying.
Unfortunately, at one such moment, he is rather upstaged by Charles Neville’s Mayor of London, played very explicitly as Boris Johnson. We all love to take the piss out of Boris, but it’s unnecessary and too on the nose. The production already works so well as a metaphor for contemporary politics, you don’t need an actor in a blond wig and a Conservative rosette hamming it up in the background to make the point, “Look politicians were manipulative and deceitful back then too!”
Otherwise, humour is this production’s strong point. Richard’s clashing self-loathing and vanity cause him to use his sword as a mirror. The princes are perfectly played as stereotypical obnoxious hoodie-wearing, Xbox-playing teenagers (and the rather Generation Game-esque political jostling to gift the boys with computer games and giant cuddly toys brings a delightful levity to a scene already much haunted by murder and the promise of murder to come). As the bodies start to stack up (each corpse immediately joining the ghostly ranks at the back of the stage, a kind of macabre chorus) the notes of humour become sharper. The decision to have Lady Anne present for the plotting of her own murder is the most ghoulish moment of tragi-comedy, Anne’s expression turning from bewilderment to shock to horror as Richard tenderly explains she is not expected to survive her “sickness.”
Only a few small flaws marked an otherwise pristine performance. While the acting is solid all round, there is some fairly unconvincing (shoulder-heaving but dry-eyed) sobbing from several of the women. Bryony Tebbutt, in particular, gives a wonderfully fiery and fully fleshed out Lady Anne, so it’s disappointing to see her directed to fake weep like an X Factor contestant. I recently saw a play where the actor remained composed while delivering a crucial and highly emotional climactic monologue; when I saw the play second-time tears dripped freely down her face as she struggled to keep her composure. It was an extraordinary moment and proves a valuable point about theatre: tears really do have to be earned. The production is possibly trying to do something interesting with gender here, as the female characters (bar the masculinely dressed Queen Margaret, played with steely ballsiness by Louise Templeton) are overtly emotional and openly disregarded by the more controlled men. A few subtle moments spoke to the gender politics of the play, as when the men engage in a stereotypically macho handshake competition. Richard III is an almost bulletproof play and with a cast this strong little needs doing to it. In some cases, a little less is required.
Richard III runs at Temple Church until 9th September. Tickets can be purchased here http://www.anticdisposition.co.uk/richard-iii-2017.html