Richard III, The Cockpit Theatre

History of a Royal Serial Killer

Why did I feel so compelled to re-read Richard III, as soon as I returned home from witnessing Lawrence Carmichael’s  modern adaptation of  Shakespeare’s history of this royal serial killer?  It wasn’t simply an attempt to replay the actors’ powerful performances. I couldn’t believe that the cast had stuck to the script. I can confirm that they did.  The cast, effortlessly and eloquently, use the natural speech patterns and tics of 21st century English to speak the language and phrases of Shakespeare’s 17th century England. Complete with contemporary regional accents, they make it fresh, realistic and easy to understand. What they do is transform it into a 21st century political action thriller about the rise and fall of this merciless royal serial killer.

The set is minimalist and Carmichael took full advantage of the small stage and the layout of the seating to bring us directly into the action, from the battle scene at the start through to the battle scene at the end of the play. It is thrilling, the fighting is very well choreographed, with freeeze-framing and slow motion action interspersing the ferocious fighting.  The cast wear contemporary 21st century clothing. The men are in dark jeans and boots, motorcycle leathers, leather waistcoats or long coats. The women dress in loose fitting tops, sometimes under corsets, and long full skirts with flashes of colour over thick tights with their feet encased in ankle boots.  The noble women also have faux fur gilets and shrugs, denoting their royal statuses.  Overall it’s a hard, edgy bo-ho style.

Kim Hardy’s Richard is very believable; he is single-minded, cunning, cruel, dangerous and manipulative.  Hardy doesn’t make Richard into a pantomime villain; his physical disabilities are visible but not grotesque. His character is not exaggerated, it is not a caricature.  Hardy uses his body to convincingly portray Richard’s limp by walking on the ball of his foot. Hardy’s posture, and a small cushion wedged between his shoulder blades, is enough to show Richard’s hunched back.

7-Kim Hardy as Richard

Lady Anne’s hatred of Richard is palpable, not just in her words. When Julia Papp, as Lady Anne, spat at Richard her spittle sprayed his face. I gasped and recoiled in reaction with the rest of the audience. Julia Papp’s Lady Anne is a powerful match for Hardy’s Richard.  Papp and Hardy sustain the rapid-fire pace of their dialogue with great ease and intensity.  It is fantastic watching the insults she throws at Richard and how he counters it with the audacity of trying to woo her.

Shakespeare’s  words and phrases, which the cast use to hurt and insult each other are, creative, and imaginative and fortunately the actors rise to the challenge. In particular, Angela Harvey, as Queen Margaret is a tough, understandably embittered woman who doesn’t hold back. She hurls nasty and vengeful oaths at Richard. Harvey’s portrayal is absolutely convincing; it is easy to suspend disbelief as she was so visceral. It is of course made more credible by the context  i.e.  that Richard murdered her son and husband, however it is her acting which elevates it.

Although the play is a tragedy, there are comedic interludes. My favourite is when the two murderers, dressed in butchers aprons and sharpening their knives, visit the Duke of Clarence in the Tower. They suffer a crisis of conscience at the thought of killing the Duke, especially whilst he is asleep. They are like a comedy double act. In this routine Murderer 1 is the straight man.  Shakespeare wrote witty one liners shot through with malice and his usual wordplay. But it’s the acting which turns the scene into a short and funny sit com.  Another funny moment is when the unwitting Bishop of Ely, superbly played by Luke MacLeod, offers strawberries to the audience.

The Director creatively uses various devices for exposition, dramatic effect, and as props.  It was a clever idea to use puppets to depict the children, especially the two princes, as this emphasises their innocence and fragility.  Another smart device used by Carmichael was how Richard is depicted riding a horse. Richard is placed on the shoulders of two men, with two more cast members at the front and two at the rear. When Richard stops galloping on his horse, they dissolve into human characters again. One of the citizen’s fiddles with the dial of an analogue radio to hear different news reports about the King’s death. It is a clever way to show how the news was spread and to prompt gossip amongst citizens, about the circumstances and consequences of the King’s demise. It is also another amusing interlude. The use of a Green Screen with music from BBC News and a newscaster’s voice, works well and is good fun. It is also clever how the actors stand/sit amongst the audience to depict a larger crowd of people in one of the scenes, as if the audience are part of the cast.

There was a strong performance from Helen Rose Hampton as Queen Elizabeth, who comes across as a survivor, cutting Richard with a sharp and cruel wit, which is passionate and true. Her hunger for revenge felt like it was torn out of her.  I also enjoyed Angela Harvey as Queen Margaret’s in her I told you so scene with Queen Elizabeth.  Harvey’s Queen Margaret is another tenacious survivor, but more experienced and manipulative than Queen Elizabeth.

9-Helen Rose Hampton as Elizabeth with Alex Stevens as Lord Grey

Other notable performances include, the remorse of Alex Stevens as James Tyrell ,  his distress at murdering the two princes felt genuine.  Guy Faith is brilliantly chilling and merciless as the Duke of Buckingham.

Carmichael used music strategically: to move the plot on, to create the atmosphere and to foreshadow tragic events. For example the music changes from spiritual to discordant, when Richard ‘reluctantly’ takes the throne to cries of long live King Richard.

As you would expect the body count is high, but the royal serial killer gets his comeuppance when he is haunted by the spirits of the many he has killed. And of course ultimately, ‘spoiler alert’, Richard is killed in battle.  The last battle scene is fast and furious, full of clashing swords and death. Because of the intimacy of the staging, I felt I was in the thick of it. Although it is not gory, it is nonetheless realistic. Hardy does a very convincing death scene which is not over the top.

Lawrence Carmichael directed a superbly talented and strong cast in an excitingly intense, fresh and modern adaptation of Richard III.

Richard III, is at The Cockpit Theatre from 12 October to 4 November 2017.

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