at the Swan Theatre, Monday 16th April 2012
*The performance reviewed was a preview*
Richard III is one of those plays which, on the page, seems to have many issues and feels a little like it doesn’t make sense and that characters’ motives are out of kilter with their actions. But rather than go down the route of many directors who try to smooth over these imperfections through ingenious devices, Roxana Silbert, in her production for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s “Nations at War” season, shows that these difficulties are part of the play. She shows us a distorted thriller, capitalizing on Gloucester’s ‘oddness’ in the charismatic, energetic performance of Jonjo O’Neill as our tragic hero.
Silbert’s setting is pretty much timeless, and puts the action at the heart of proceedings. At first, Ti Green’s tall steely set seems straight-laced and ordered, but within moments it’s clear that the floor panels are angled to look like off-centre reflections in a mirror. A Frankenstein-inspired light fitting (in a dark design by Rick Fisher), complete with wire frame and lightbulbs, hangs over the thrust. Doors and windows are constantly discovered at the back of the set, opening up portals onto ideas not yet contemplated. Nick Powell’s music is superb, and uses the tones and rhythms of a fifties spy thriller in order to set the scene. During the final sword fight, it makes everything feel like it is performed in slow motion.
Unfortunately, a few performances are over-acted. Pippa Nixon’s Lady Anne is not quick enough to match up to O’Neill’s Richard, and she is somewhat too liberal with her gestures. Likewise, Mark Jax’s Edward IV falls a little flat and Sandra Duncan’s Duchess of York verges on dull. Nevertheless, we are treated to solid performances from Edmund Kingsley’s Clarence and Alex Waldmann’s Sir Catesby, whilst Brian Ferguson’s Buckingham and Siobhan Redomond’s Elizabeth offer some impressive foils to this production’s Richard.
Jonjo O’Neill in the title role is, for me, nigh-on definitive. He moves away from so many actors’ decision to play the tormented prince as someone who is jolly in the presence of characters and sullen in the audience’s gaze. Instead, he is perpetually charming, and woos us with his skills as a comedian and presenter. We are entirely implicit in his rise, and when he addresses the citizens, we can’t help feeling we’re egging them on as Richard’s minions. The verse builds up in his mouth before being spat out, his tongue gliding over the vowels and dancing over the consonants. I haven’t ever heard these speeches spoken with such relish.
What’s particularly striking about this production is the number of times we find ourselves laughing. Right up until the incredible final sword fight (haven’t seen a proper one of those in a while), we are laughing along with Richard. It is this, matched with his oddity, which makes his demise so tragic. It feels like he may just joke his way out of execution, but just like him we’ve been able to see deep down the pain which would culminate with death. Richmond (Iain Batchelor) tries to take over by appealing to us near the end, but we can’t help feeling that with Richard dead, the state will be a far less interesting place to live.