Richard III, Alexandra Palace

I’ve heard it said that chess is easy to play but hard to master. The production of Richard III currently at Alexandra Palace (now renamed “Ally Pally”) makes me think the same could be said of that play’s eponymous king.

In many ways, Richard III (or Richard, Duke of Gloucester, as he is for most of the play) is one of Shakespeare’s most iconic characters. Hamlet may edge him out for name recognition, as might Juliet and her Romeo. But none could beat him in the Mickey Mouse test – with his (apocryphal) hunched-back Richard is by far the most recognisable Shakespearean lead when cast into silhouette.

Similarly he is perhaps Shakespeare’s most iconic exercise in character-building, as both his goal, and his means, are recognisable throughout, even when the latter begin to fail him. The former is the kingship – to achieve it in the first half and to hold it in the second. The latter is cunning and humour, amounting to a systematic weaponising of false intimacy, something used as potently on the audience as on his various historic victims.

All of this makes me think that of all Shakespeare’s major leads, Richard may be the hardest role for an actor to add value to (perhaps Falstaff, if he can be said to be a lead, may come close). Or perhaps I’m simply looking to excuse the energetic but workmanlike performance of Tom Mothersdale as the villainous duke.

A similar generosity led to me look for a practical reason for one of the most peculiar aspects of this play – the constant intrusion onto the stage of the output of smoke machines posted in the wings. What this did to the poor actors throats I can’t imagine. What it did to mine, a considerable distance from the stage, was bad enough. The only value I could imagine deriving from that constant (and I do mean constant) output would be to obscure some defect in the set. And yet the set design was perhaps the strongest part of the production – I found myself wishing the same set might be used for other plays so as to get full use from its simple elegance (this despite an absurd, and unacknowledged, incongruity that the set design throws up with Richard’s final couplet after his seduction of Anne).

And with Anne I come to better things. Played with remarkable power by Leila Mimmack, she manages the particular feat of dominating the stage while staying true to the character. The same is true of Eileen Nicholas as Queen Margaret. I must confess on a personal note that in any production of Richard III, Margaret has the potential to be my favourite character and Nicholas does not disappoint, especially in the second half, where the direction is less hurried.

Mothersdale’s performance is not bad, it is simply – as I have said – workmanlike, and with the few exceptions I’ve noted above, plus a startling turn from Heledd Gwynn in a collection of minor roles, workmanlike is a fair description of this entire production. If you fancy a decent Richard III by all means check this one out. But if you’re looking for something timely, insightful or otherwise memorable, look elsewhere.

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