All the kings are dead; all the heirs are gone too – this is a particularly bloody time in royal history. It all centres around Richard III (Greg Hicks), the Machiavellian hunchback that lets no-one stop him take the crown for himself, albeit for an all too brief time of two years. Richard is known to many as the hunchback, the king with such obvious deformity as does not befit his status.
In Mehmet Ergen’s interpretation, Richard is physically chained down, a useless arm and a gammy leg tied together by metal links. It diminishes Hicks stature and by contrast elevates his character. But even a star performance by Hicks is not sufficient to liven up the otherwise dull and dreary adaptation of Shakespeare’s second longest work.
There is little of note to say about production value for this performance, a multilevel set that is not used often or to any tangible effect. It is clear that Ergen is focussing the audience towards the characters and the text, as exchanges between enemies and friends alike are delivered with vitriol and barbed with poisonous intent.
Former Queen Margaret of Lancaster (Jane Bertish), widow to Henry VI, is prophetic in her pronouncement of house York’s undoing. Her tone of voice, her presence and her commitment naturally draws the eye – a steady build-up of ever worsening fates on her enemies, ending in the “rotting hog” Richard himself. One of the highlights of this cast, Margaret unfortunately features all too briefly in the text. The other women are much less impressive in both stature and delivery – Queen Elizabeth Woodville (Sara Powell), Edward IV’s wife, lacks impact even in her undoing, slowly stripped of all those she holds close. This is a woman that gradually loses everyone at the hands of Richard; Powell’s performance is too composed for someone that mourns her husband, brother and both sons in the space of one play.
Ergen’s focus is clearly on the madness inherent within the eponymous character, but apart from this the play lacks any other clear artistic concept. At least his focus proves the highlight – Hicks is every which way a worthy Richard. Physically impaired, he uses his reduced form as a device of strength and cunning, accenting the deformities to further add to the overall picture of Richard as conniving and wholly unsavoury. Hicks gives the kind of performance that makes the skin crawl and the audience feel dirty and uncomfortable, in need of washing off the remnants of the evening. From the flick of a tongue to the wandering eye, to a screwed up and utterly repulsive set of expressions, Hicks understands Richard’s malformities and executes them with ease.
Equally at ease with the text, Hicks is also able to draw out dark comedy from the script – he lilts his prose with rhythm, pause and inflection so as to immediately strike up a conversation with the audience. This is not a king that stands on the parapet and delivers high and mighty verse; this is a miser that scrounges around with his people on the ground, looking for scraps. Hicks is relatable to the masses, speaking the same language and looking as little like royalty as them. Surrounded by the equally sinister Buckingham (Peter Guinness) and Catesby (Matthew Sim), the trio make for a dark and deadly combination, executing their plans faultlessly, only to be eventually undone by each other.
The final act is one of war, of conflict – the climax of the play in which Richard finally gets his come-uppance. Ergen flippantly throws away this scene with disregard, no concrete idea or creative input to accentuate the ending of a tyrannical rule. This holds true for much of Richard III – with the exception of the main character and his sinister band, everything feels half-conceived and forgotten about, a winter discontent that in this case does not return to glorious summer.
Director: Mehmet Ergen
Writer: William Shakespeare
Design: Anthony Lamble; David Howe (lighting); Dinah Mullen (sound)
Cast: Greg Hicks; Paul Kemp; Jim Bywater; Sara Powell; Femi Elufowoju Jr.; Annie Firbank; Georgina Rich; Mark Jax; Peter Guinness; Matthew Sim; Jamie de Courcey; Jane Bertish; Cameron Lane; Samuel Billington-Farmer; Dominik Čičak; Christos Floros
Image courtesy of Alex Brenner.
Richard III plays the Arcola Theatre until 10 June. For more information or to book tickets, please visit the website.