Richard 3 | Bell Shakespeare

Richard 3 | Bell ShakespeareLeft – Rose Riley and Kate Mulvany. Cover – (l-r) Ivan Donato, Kate Mulvany, Meredith Penman, Gareth Reeves. Photos – Prudence Upton

Hailed by many as Shakespeare’s greatest villain, King Richard the Third is beyond question a towering theatrical creation. The Bard’s Richard is undoubtedly far removed from that of true history, as many of his supposed crimes were the stuff of subsequent Tudor propaganda – although the recent discovery of his remains revealed that the “hunchbacked” king did indeed suffer from scoliosis. Yet ironically, however, much as historians and archaeologists may continue to refine and redefine the appropriate contextual view of the last monarch of the House of York, it is Shakespeare’s wildly fictionalised version which will forevermore carry the more indelible impression in the public consciousness. Such was the power of the great playwright’s creation that his fictional Richard has by far eclipsed the real historical king of England upon which he was loosely based.

That alone is testament to the Bard’s enduring significance, yet it is the ephemeral status of the theatrical medium that Richard on the page will always be secondary to Richard in performance. And performance, by its very nature, is subject to near-infinite reinterpretation, from the actor, director, dramaturg, and ultimately the audience for whom they perform. So while Shakespeare’s Richard may have supplanted the actual man who once ruled England, there is in turn no definitive nor “canonical” portrayal of the character he created.

Which, for a part as richly evocative and layered as this, is of course one of the enduring appeals of staging the play, generally as a showcase for the great actors of their generations in the title role. It may be a bit early to say whether actor/playwright Kate Mulvany is destined to be heralded as one such titan of the stage, but she is most certainly already a seasoned and captivating performer, and in pulling double-duty here as dramaturg for this production she is clearly extremely committed to the character.

Needless to say, cross-casting the gender of the lead role is, although hardly original, certainly an atypical approach to the material. The choice to do so, by building the production around Mulvany, has its triumphs and drawbacks. Other than perhaps as an extension of Bell Shakespeare’s long-held commitment to “colourblind casting” by selecting a strong lead actor regardless of gender, the specific rationale behind this production’s approach seems to be in focusing on the strong female voices in the play. While most of the men cower and capitulate, all of the most memorable scenes of bold rancour are between Richard and the women he has wronged and seeks to further manipulate.

Although none are ultimately able to foil Richard directly, Lady Anne, Queen Elizabeth, and Queen Margaret each have powerfully bitter words for their bloody tormentor. Though some are either bent or broken to his will, they each stand up to him far more memorably than any men do in the course of the play. This includes even Richmond, who ultimately defeats and supplants the wicked king, yet does so with far less dramatic engagement. By casting a woman in the title role, although Mulvany still plays Richard as a male character, it cements the focus of these scenes, which have always been amongst the most memorable in Shakespeare’s text, as being those showcasing women’s voices.

There are some theatrical choices which play with the idea of gender less successfully, however, such as the scene in which Richard challenges his court to behold his physical malformations, staged here with Mulvany stripping almost naked. Despite having her back to the audience, her feminine body is unmistakable once divested of male costuming, prompting the audience to heightened meta-awareness of the cross-casting. The flourish seems to have little clear message other than to break the hithertofore quite easy suspension of disbelief, unless perhaps to suggest an awkward equation between Richard’s “deformity” and a sexist reading of the female form as unworthily less than “complete”, to be suitably male and kingly?

It is a scene which is emblematic of the production’s other shortcomings, which can be best summed up as uninspired, but shot through with moments of brilliant performance. Peter Evans’ direction and Anna Cordingley’s production design render all the action in an ambiguously 1920s high society function room, static and unchanging. The beautifully-costumed nobles’ poise degenerate into recurring moments of wild partying, in which the assembled actors are possessed of spasmodic, repetitive movements of dancing, drinking, cavorting, their actions often looping and rewinding like a frenetically-edited music video. It is a thoroughly annoying touch.

Predominantly though, the production takes a quasi-Brechtian approach of having the entire ensemble onstage at all times, typically lounging in the background nursing glasses of wine or engaged in silent conversation, as though at an unending party. With no scenic effects (other than an annoying and seemingly pointless video-linked dumbwaiter) or significant changes in costume to denote the considerable doubling and trebling-up of characters, the first half of the production drags, despite the best efforts of the fine cast. The only positive outcome of this largely dull staging, be it intentional or otherwise, is that it is rather effective at framing the shifting alliances and court politics at play as being the exclusive province of the idle rich. Intrigue and bloody tyranny may be afoot, but we never get the impression that these cowards, cronies and cowed noblemen ever let their own quality of life suffer amidst civil chaos, at least until said lives abruptly end.

This doesn’t make watching many stretches of the play more interesting with this approach, but it does allow the aforementioned scenes of Richard’s far more emotionally raw confrontations with the women shine much brighter by comparison. And, in turn, while it may not necessarily make Richard himself any more sympathetic in the throes of his villainy, framing the characters surrounding him to be more-than-usually boring and unlikable makes the audiences’ inherent complicity with their villain-protagonist that much more piquant. It does, perhaps, give us a bit more permission to revel in Richard’s nefariousness as he takes us into his confidence via his many famous soliloquies and asides, to enjoy some subversive pleasure in witnessing his delight at the cleverness of his own murderous machinations.

It may not quite be a performance for the ages, let down as it is by a lackluster surrounding production, but Mulvany is extremely good as Richard. Her approach is memorably wicked, taking on the legendary role with gusto and not shying away from the character’s self-congratulatory intelligence and perverse self-justifications. It is a strong physical performance as well, choosing to go the whole hog with playing up to Shakespeare’s descriptions of the character, complete with a limp, withered arm, and contorted posture. A leering, two-faced hobgoblin shot through with genius and pure evil, it is a very fine performance, and by far the best thing in the show.

It is a shame that the truly strong cast around her is often ill-served by the aforementioned directorial choices. While certainly no-one gives a poor performance, few really have much chance to shine. Notable exceptions include a powerful speech of rebuke from the redoubtable Sandy Gore as Queen Margaret, and an excellent turn as Queen Elizabeth by Meredith Penman. The major scene of confrontation late in the play between Penman and Mulvany is quite frankly electric in its emotional intensity, and this masterful exchange between these two very fine actors is easily the high point of the show.

Bell Shakespeare’s latest production of Richard 3 is something of a jumble. An uninspired staging of one of the great plays of the canon, redeemed if not entirely rescued by the strong central performances of the major female leads. Ironically this may have been the intention at its core, yet the rest of the show suffers for its compromised execution.

Bell Shakespeare

Director Peter Evans

Venue: Sydney Opera House       
Dates: 25 February – 1 April, 2017
Tickets: $45 – $92
Bookings: 02 9250 7777 |


Canberra Theatre Centre | 6 – 15 April
Arts Centre Melbourne | 20 April – 7 May


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