Thursday, 14 January 2016

Theatre review: Richard III (The Faction / New Diorama)

Being the fourth centenary of his death this is likely to be another particularly Shakespeare-heavy year, but my first visit of the year is, as it often has been, to the Faction's annual residency at the New Diorama. Mark Leipacher directs a revised version of the company's first-ever production, Richard III, with the aptly-named Christopher York playing the title role. Opening with a dance-like fight scene, this is a young and powerful Dick, who we see being instrumental in getting York victory in the Wars of the Roses. The youngest of the brothers, though, he ends up several steps away from real power, and turns his easy brutality on his own family. With Edward IV (Richard Delaney) nearing death, Richard despatches with middle brother Clarence (Lachlan McCall) before starting a rumour that Edward's sons and heirs are illegitimate. Ruthlessly disposing of anyone who might object, he manoeuvres himself into position until he's being begged to take the crown for himself.

I first saw the Faction in a very physical, all-male production of Macbeth, some of whose moments I still remember, and this has kept me coming back to the company's shows. As it also dates from the company's early days, this Richard III is reminiscent of that production's highly physical style, with very simple costumes and no props (although far from all-male, it's pointedly diverse in gender and ethnicity, with a number of little digs in the publicity and programme at Trevor Nunn's Wars of the White Roses.) This physical element, with the actors' bodies standing in for the missing props, is interesting, but with mixed results - at times the mass of bodies (there's a cast of 19) is distracting, but when it works it really works, as with Richard's throne being made up of the people he's murdered to get to it, the tense execution of Rivers (Damian Lynch) and Vaughn (David Eaton,) or the showstopping horse that Richard rides into battle (only to, famously, lose it.)


The story is told briskly and clearly, although initially at the cost of characterisation. This does improve markedly after the interval though, and the undoubted highlight comes in Act IV, when Queen Elizabeth (Kate Sawyer,) Queen Margaret (Sakuntala Ramanee) and the Duchess (Carmen Munroe) share their woes, followed by Elizabeth's confrontation with Richard himself; an eerily quiet scene contrasting with the sound and fury everywhere else, an effect accentuated by Chris Withers' lighting casting looming shadows over the back wall. York's take on Richard comes into clearer focus now, not quite the panto villain but nor the more sympathetic take of recent years, he's more of a cocky bruiser who, around the time he murders the Princes in the Tower, realises how far he's gone and can't go back, starting to go insane. Physically, there's an interesting take on the character's infamous disabilities - York treats them like a war wound that only flares up occasionally, getting physically stronger when his confidence and power are greater, his limp and withered hand returning only when he's brought down by being reminded of them.

It's good to see Anna-Maria Nabirye, who was a highlight of a Faction season a couple of years ago, return to become a regular ensemble member and play Buckingham. Although it feels like, having gender-flipped the character, Leipacher missed an opportunity to suggest something more than a platonic relationship between her and Richard: Particularly after he murders her and ends up cradling her body in the background; but then, The Faction have always tended towards an oddly sexless feel.


After last year's odd "leave 'em wanting less" approach it's also good to see the company go back to being a bit more liberal with the lengthy text. I can see the logic of simplifying the prediction about who is a danger to Edward, changing the "G"-for-George to a "C"-for-Clarence, although I did miss the way the original means Richard "G"-for-Gloucester is hiding in plain sight. But I'm definitely on board with streamlining the dream sequence before Bosworth by cutting out the ghosts' encouragement of Richmond (Jeremy Ang Jones) - their undermining of Richard really is the most important part of that scene. The production's undoubtedly uneven, with the surprisingly large cast including a fair few dodgy performances in the supporting roles, but for the most part this sees the company go back to the inventive style that first made me interested in them, and after taking a while to find its feet Richard III stands up confidently.

Richard III by William Shakespeare is booking until the 6th of February at the New Diorama Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes including interval.

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