“Richard III” by William Shakespeare

at Belgrade Theatre, Friday 19th November 2010

Richard III is generally not seen as a funny play. Involving thirteen deaths, most of which are brutal murders, and the villainous musings of one power-hungry man, most of us would not immediately associate such a text with humour. Somehow, however, Propeller, under the direction of Edward Hall, have managed to extract obscene amounts of laughter from Shakespeare’s bloody last history play, and in doing so have shown Richard to be not just a power-grabber, but a twisted and warped individual.

We all know the story; Richard, Duke of Gloucester, picks off his enemies one by one, backstabbing and blackmailing in the process so that he may eventually become king. Indeed at times the narrative does simply seem to be that of death, plot, death, plot. Hall’s fast pace extrapolates this, focussing on Richard’s obsession with death and keeping us guessing as to how the next victim will be executed.

Propeller’s trade-mark all-male cast brings out the masculinity innate in the play, but never seems overpowering, for there are only four female characters. As women, the men in the female roles seem to hold particular gravitas and we genuinely believe they can stand up to those above them. When not in role, the ensemble dresses in lab-coats and Hannibal-style masks, humming and singing a capella, creating a mysterious atmosphere. At times, this is nothing short of genius, as we hear cheery tones emanating from their lips in the immediate aftermath of a gruesome death.

Being an ensemble cast, it is difficult to single out particular performances, but both Chris Myles as the Duke of Buckingham and Thomas Padden as Hastings are impressive. In the title role Richard Clothier excels, offering a charismatic but twisted interpretation of the villain. When speaking to vast numbers of people he seems confident, but there is always a tremble in his voice when addressing individuals. With a hunchback and braced lower-leg, he has a completely disfigured right side, countered only by the absence of a hand on his left arm. What he lacks in physical power, however, he more than makes up in menace.

Michael Pavelka’s set is something like a cross between operating theatre and torture chamber, clad with screens and murder instruments. This of course is perfect for showing up the red blood, and as the murders become more hideous the blood that is spilt becomes all the more evident. Again, this allows more humour to be found in the multitude of deaths. Ben Ormerod’s lighting and Jon Trenchard’s music merely add to this grim atmosphere.

It is odd that we should find ourselves laughing so much at such horrible murders, but the outrageousness of the crimes means we cannot help ourselves. Edward Hall’s production, therefore, does at times seem to be nothing short of farce, as the number and nature of deaths gets more ridiculous. We see the murders as Richard does, as they become nothing more than jokes. The tone of this production is pitched perfectly, being a cross between macabre and often close to music-hall, but we are left questioning whether or not we were supposed to be laughing all along.

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