Royal Shakespeare Company
Swan Theatre, Stratford Upon Avon
1st June 2012, evening
Fortunately, Richard of Gloucester is never mentioned by his full royal title in the play. With Richard and the Duke of Buckingham played in harsh Ulster accents, it would be pronounced Richard The Turd, which would be wrong in such an excellent production. What is it with the RSC and Irish accents this last year? We had an Ulster Petruchio in Taming of The Shrew, an Irish porter as suicide bomber in Macbeth, then Irish Viola and Sebastian in Twelfth Night. The earlier examples were designed to mark an outsider with a different accent. What with all the characters in Richard III being related in at least two different ways (and seeking a third) a uniform accent (say, something boldly different like standard RP English) would be logical. The regional accent is becoming a lazy marker based on clichés about the regions. Ulster is supposed to sound harsh and aggressive, and that’s what it’s used for here. Actors may like to use their original regional accents, but they should also be able to do standard. That’s called acting. It’s enjoyable for me to see how Shakespeare’s lines still resonate in any accent, but with so many non-British pilgrims to Stratford in the audience, strong regional accents are a barrier.
Jonjo O’Neill is a brilliant Richard. He has markers: bad teeth, continual evil grin, Irish accent, obsession with plotting that remind me strongly of a colleague I travelled with often on business. This was the funniest Richard I’ve seen too, which also fits my old friend, for I think he was a friend too, though in his case smiling faces and memorable jokes were no guarantee. Once he was asking me for background about various editors at the company, and I left the bar to go to the gents. Looking back, I saw him adding his gin to my glass and topping his own up with tonic water. My old colleague refused to have a radio in his car, which was a special order to remove, even thirty years ago. When I asked him why, he said that driving was his plotting time. I asked what he was plotting. It was to be sales director of the whole company. He was then a lowly rep. Suffice it to say he became sales director of the whole company. Jonjo O’Neill even looks like him, so I was convinced by his portrayal right from the outset. Am I wrong, or did he have Shane MacGowan blackened teeth in the first half, but not the second (when he was king)?
As I said, no Richard has got this many laughs for looks, asides, glances, expressions of ‘What!’ His scene near the end with Elizabeth, his sister-in-law, leapt out larger and stronger than I’ve noticed before. It mirrors his early scene with Lady Anne, whom he woos even though he’s killed her father and husband. His persuasive power has waned. He’s killed Elizabeth’s sons, but is trying to persuade her to betroth her daughter to him. That’s his niece, but Plantagents liked to keep it in the family. As she recoils, ever more incredulous, this Richard can’t understand why. It’s past … That’s in the past … yes, but that’s past …, he says. You don’t get the impression of dissembling, so much as psychopathic self-deception. He really can’t understand why she should have a problem with him. All I could see was Tony Blair confronted with deaths, and bombings and misdeeds, simply pausing, then saying without remorse, ‘Yes. Well, let’s move on …’ Richard is irritated that she keeps wanting to drag up ancient stuff like Clarence’s murder, Rivers and Grey, a few old Lancastrians, mere kids.
His other glorious scene is when the young Duke of York, his nephew, leaps on his back, and he snaps and tries to strangle him. When he’s pulled off, he goes straight into an attempt at jolly avuncular smiles, but the serpent’s teeth were revealed.
The pious Richard at prayer scene was funny, with the executioners scrambling into priestly garb in the background. He ended up, standing in the window, a grinning turkey cock. O’Neill draws every ounce of possible comedy. I’d love to see him in a comic role. A couple of pieces I read say he wasn’t threatening or powerful. I thought that evil grin threatening enough.
Jonjo O’Neill as Richard of Gloucester, Pippa Nixon as Lady Anne
The four women are all well played. The old Queen Margaret is a militant grannie in black trousers. Militant grannies have organizations now, and she looks like a founder member. The mother of Edward IV, Clarence and Richard, the old Duchess of York, is magnificently regal and powerful. Some reviews say she looked like Margaret Thatcher in costume. Perhaps her first twin set was Thatcheresque, as was her hair, but she was more powerful, more dignified. She looks like the mother of two kings; you certainly wouldn’t mess with this regal lady, so when she curses her youngest son, it has gravitas. Elizabeth, Edward IV’s wife, recoiled with gusto in that crucial late scene. Lady Anne, whose lines I know well, was appropriately icy and fierce, but I thought the scene lacked the edge of sexuality that makes it so emotionally complex. Buckingham was another reminder of the Blair Years, a dapper, neatly-bearded, velvet-suited press secretary if ever there was one.
Jonjo O’Neill as Richard, Brian Ferguson as the Duke of Buckingham
I was delighted with the battle of Bosworth. Real swords, real armour, lots of action, genuine sparks of metal on metal. Richmond, one of the dullest characters in Shakespeare, actually worked here. He was so impassioned that he carried you along with him. Was the Prince Harry lookalike aspect deliberate? It added. He is after all Harry’s ancestor. It was a modern dress production where you watched them don armour and pick up swords, and saw no incongruity in it.
The Battle of Bosworth
The production is not perfect. Richard III is one of the longest plays. I know that. I once participated in a totally uncut version (see the Old Vic review). They ran this one long too. It could do with the twenty minutes precis that is more usual. We got the whole of the Hastings / Mistress Shore subplot that you can lose without destroying the story. The bare set verges on dull, but that’s a Swan Theatre given.
The biggest hurdle, the one looming over it, is Kevin Spacey’s 2011 Old Vic production. However much I liked O’Neill’s quirky interpretation, and indeed O’Neill is closer to the historical Richard’s age (he died at 32), you have to admit that Spacey’s Richard steamrollered it. It was an all-time great Richard by an actor at the height of his powers. It had the production qualities, the mass drumming, the use of mics, and video. It had a powerful inexorable rhythm and pace that this one couldn’t come near matching, the length not helping there. So while it was a fine RSC production, perhaps it was the wrong year to do it, while memories of Spacey are strong.
At last the essential Plantagenet family tree was provided, missing from the Old Vic version. There were notes on the niceness of the historical Richard III (see also my old Vic review here). It says he was ‘happily married to Lady Anne” which is making a leap into the unknown past. I would have liked something on the production concept.