Richard lll at Galway Arts Festival. Town Hall. July 19-23
First, to dispel the idea that Richard lll was a hunchback: he wasn’t, he had one shoulder higher than the other. That he was the embodiment of evil is true. So why then is his character so compelling? Richard Clothier plays Richard in Propeller’s production now showing at the Galway Arts Festival. When I interviewed him recently during the company’s UK tour, he had one explanation: “It’s because he’s a man who acts without any conscience and, because we’re drawn into the play, we are complicit.”
Unusually, Clothier’s Richard is tall, commanding, blond, his leather-clad withered arm the only visible hint of his inner imperfections. He has one objective – to get rid of all the people who stand between him and the English crown.
That includes the hapless Lady Anne, first widowed by Richard and then wooed by him. The scene in which he seduces her, across the dead body of her father-in-law who he has also murdered, is electric. How can she be taken in by this scheming, odious liar? Yet she is, every time, only to be cast aside as soon as she has left the stage: “ I have her now but I will not keep her long,” Richard confides in the audience. And yes, we sit there and listen to him, complicit in her betrayal.
I asked Jon Trenchard, who plays Lady Anne, why his character gives herself to Richard: “ She had no other option,”he says. “She was a woman on her own. Her male protectors, husband and father-in-law, had been murdered by Richard and she was totally dependent on him, in his thrall.”
Propeller’s director, Ed Hall, son of Sir Peter, set up the all-male company some years back so playing a female role is nothing new for Trenchard but how, I wanted to know, did he prepare himself to play a woman?
“Well, no wigs for a start. We are definitely men playing women. In this performance, I wear a long dress but over it a sort of tail coat. The wardrobe department has been helpful and suggested walking with feet pointing forwards which makes for short steps.” But what about hands which are always a bit of a giveaway, I ask. “Gloves. They cover a multitude.” Trenchard has a degree in music from Oxford and has composed the vaguely plain-chant music for the production. Ed Hall has set this production in an old-fashioned lunatic asylum with men in white coats administering death by syringe, pulling blood-splattered hospital screens across the stage for a scene change and wheeling away comatose bodies.
The afternoon I saw the play, in Salford, a large number of school parties were in and gave it everything they had – howls, shrieks, boos, foot stamping and, at one point, starting to clap in time when they realised, long before I did, that the Scrivener was rapping. By the time the bags of blood had started to burst and Buckingham was walking around holding his own entrails, the audience was in raptures. What was it like to have such a participatory audience, I asked Clothier. “It was fine. I just had to pace it to find a place to come in.”
Shakespeare was writing, of course, for a Tudor audience which explains the exaggerated evilness of Richard, the last of the Plantagenets, so it will be interesting to see what an Irish audience, with its own take on the Tudors, will make of it.
I have seen some 15 productions of this play in places as far apart as New York and Copenhagen with men and women playing Richard and I can safely say this is one of the best. Miss it at your peril as you will not see its like again.