Shakespeare’s Richard III is a man of many faces. He’s a persuader, a charmer, a seducer, an actor, a con-man, a villain, a devoted brother one minute, then a mad general the next. Olivier, Spacey, Pacino, Sher, McKellen, and Branagh have all had a go at playing this delectable, disfigured miscreant and in Roxana Silbert’s new production in the Swan Theatre, RSC, Jonjo O’Neill takes up the mantle.
The production opens with Clarence and Edwards’ families waiting for them in a scene representative of a well-polished modern family portrait. Under a trumpeting fanfare, the three brothers return from war. Edward embraces his wife and children, Clarence is welcomed by his mother and children, and Richard is left alone, no one to greet him, awkwardly turning on the spot alone. Silbert’s striking opening image superbly hints at the motivation for Richard’s deeply disturbed psychological make-up and sets us up nicely for the fast-paced modern style of the production.
O’Neill then takes us further. He smiles and laughs through his rotten teeth and cheeky northern Irish accent, delighting in his own cleverness and charming the audience into complicity. He delivers the 300-odd speeches with such stylistic aplomb and wit that the often difficult language is delivered to the audience at its most beautiful and digestible. Indeed, the most noticeable characteristic of Silbert’s interpretation is the heightened comic slant on this otherwise most macabre play.
Due to the comic tone, despite the length of the play, there’s a real pace to the production which gathers during the second half, leading to a slickly choreographed final battle and gripping death duel. Richard winds up the end of the play manically and erratically; stomping around when he doesn’t get his own way and clodhopping towards his ultimate downfall. In consideration, the only part of this production I felt short-changed on was the gore. Although Richard never kills anyone by his own hand, the play could have benefited from some more blood to show the dark reality of Richard’s casual executions.
The standout chemistry in the production comes between Richard and his mother, the Duchess of York, played by Sandra Duncan. Her rants in Act III Scene IV emanated parental anger and natural authority whilst exploring a much more complex dynamic, exposing the usual hard-nosed, smirking Richard in a rare moment of vulnerability. Silbert has produced a wonderful touch in giving the Duchess a walking stick. This subtle prop connects her own physical weakness with Richard’s limp and visualises an inexplicable link between the two. Indeed there is a fascinating relationship between them: needy and resentful on Richard’s part and embarrassed and guilt-ridden on his mother’s. These wonderful moments perhaps could have been explored further to balance out the comic touches and give more depth to the motivation and pathology of Richard’s behaviour.
This production of Richard III hints at the darkness and psychological complexity most are accustomed to from modern productions, however it doesn’t go far enough and never quite establishes or satisfies the characters’ motivations. Nevertheless, it is pacey, surprisingly witty, and definitely enjoyable.