Richard III | Melbourne Theatre CompanyOh excellent, good and gentle fellows, excellent! With the bard you do get excited about language. MTC’s Richard III is a good night of theatre all round; every element you want on stage is present in the thoughtful hands of director Simon Phillips (who is growing visibly from strength to strength). Often, with a modern take on Shakespeare (even though it’s now the norm), you can feel a tad of defensiveness, a mental sitting back and folding of the arms – unreasonable but there, nevertheless. In this case the modernization means you can follow the story with its massive cast without having to work so hard at understanding all the dialogue. The production makes general reference to totalitarianism with imagery reminiscent of 20th century regimes as well as those more recent, and a nod to some television shows about political machinations, the West Wing, for example. There are almost moments of Yes Minister with Shakespeare’s flickers of levity, irony and humour. Much looks familiar; details are seamlessly blended into an aesthetically superb whole supported by a world class set and lighting design.

Liberties have been taken with the script; this play – as part of a tetralogy – is traditionally always edited as it refers frequently to the earlier Henry plays and Richard II. We, thankfully, are spared confusing asides from or references to characters with whom we have no relationship, eg, a dialogue between Richard and the Lord Mayor of London re the over-hasty murder of Hastings. MTC’s Richard opens with a regicide that has actually already happened in a previous play, an economical device which sets the story rolling and decisively establishes the character of Richard. After seeing such brutality, that an audience can still ‘go along’ with Richard is entirely dependent on an actor who is up to the job.

Ewen Lesley’s Richard is powerful and compelling, so ruinously evil and forcefully seductive that you just want to shag him out of sheer gratitude. And he’s so young! All round the acting is so damn fine it makes your eyes water. One of the delights of this production is the way each cast member gets to have his/her moment of sunshine, moonshine (or candlelight). As Queen Margaret, Jennifer Hagan’s performance is an aria of finesse, so beautifully counterpoised with Deirdre Rubenstein as the mother of Richard that by the time you get to see them relating together on stage you’re beside yourself. The older actors have the heft, the chiaroscuro and the subtle shading that tickles then delivers a left hook to the cheek. Alison Whyte (Queen Elizabeth) consistently brings a distinctive resin of her own to her characters, vulnerable and human. Even the virtuous but boring character of victor Richmond is given an injection of Obama-esque charisma by the youthful Bert Labonté. Zahra Newman impresses as a female Catesby and Humphrey Bower as Richard’s appalling accomplice Buckingham.

The ending occurs in a post-industrial apocalyptic mode where you see Richard and his world fall to pieces as he literally falls from a tortured climb. With Richard III in particular, audiences are left with a deep appreciation of how contemporary Shakespeare’s dramas can seem, especially so in this beautifully relevant production.

Melbourne Theatre Company presents
Richard III
by William Shakespeare

Director Simon Phillips

Venue: MTC Theatre, Sumner Theatre
Dates: 24 April - 12 June 2010
Tickets: $42.55 – $83.15: (Under 30s $30)
Bookings: MTC Box Office (03) 8688 0800 |

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