I tend to wear a little velvet number to the theatre, not tights, leggings, thermal socks, a vest top, a long sleeved top, a jumper, a coat, a hat, a blanket and gloves. But tonight I’m in The Shoe Factory Social Club, an abandoned show factory on St Mary’s Plain – it’s quickly become Norwich’s newest and most avant-garde performance spaces. Warned in advance that heating would be limited, I prepped properly for a cold November night. Me and my date (a pink hot water bottle) were welcomed warmly, and we joined the 30 strong audience in the basic and harsh surroundings of the Shoe Factory.
Richard III was written by Shakespeare around 1592, based on a king who lived in the late 1400’s. This production, by Norwich’s longstanding Crude Apache theatre company was set in a post-industrial world which suited the cold, raw space perfectly. With graffitied sheets, cardboard boxes, pallets and rubbish creating the scenery, scenes being changed by the cast moving wire fences into different configurations, and costumes the absolute opposite of traditional Shakespearean dress (jeans, trainers, leggings and hoodies) this was a really exciting way for me to see Richard III for the first time.
This is a portrayal of how an anti hero rises, through means of corruption, spin and back stabbing to become King of England. Back in the 1400’s the upper classes, and certainly royalty, were so busy marrying, killing, calling for henchmen and having covert conversations in candlelit anti-rooms about other people that they didn’t really have time to think about what a king should actually be doing, like making laws and trying to avoid war. They made the absolute most of the huge amount of power they held, and often, to be fair, majorly fucked it up as a result.
Russell J Turner is our Richard III, on a crutch, with a crooked back, a long leather coat and a weather beaten face, filled with bitterness, avarice and stone cold determination. He’s mesmorising, and brilliant, and his utter unsuitability for the job of king is made even more clear from his unimposing look, including his crown worn on top of a black beanie. His presence, however, is terrifying, menacing and frighteningly unfeeling. But he’s also funny at times, with some witty asides, and in a way I can’t help but like him – literally getting away with murder from beginning to end (not that he ever gets his own hands dirty, using some creepy, drugged up droog-like henchmen as well as full on baseball bat wielding muscle when needed), his sheer insouciance is, weirdly, a delight.
The first section before the interval saw Richard getting rid of annoying potential adversaries, the second his rise to power through the power of spin from his mate Lord Buckingham, and the third his failure to maintain power, mainly because he doesn’t know how to keep it, and really doesn’t want it anyway – having dispatched almost every man (including the two young princes – you know, the ones in the tower) in the play, his only remaining buddy is a henchman. That’s never a good situation to be in. And then of course, there’s the battle royale at the end, with the classic “My horse! My horse! My kingdom for a horse” line.
The acting is outstanding throughout. Absolutely outstanding. I am gripped, taut and engaged – not always easy when sitting still and freezing cold for nearly four hours. Special mention must go to the women in this company – Melanie Fiander, Joanna Swan and Jenny Belsey moved between their various roles with ease and credence. This play is interesting in that women play a major role, acting as moral adversaries to Richard’s ridiculous manipulations – mentioning that your daughter’s unlikely to want to marry a guy who’s already killed her dad and two brothers seems obvious, but not so much to Richard. Their grief, despair and the fact that they are actually the only characters to stand up to him and speak their minds make the women stronger than the men in this story, and yet their lives are the most destroyed as they have the least power. These three actors were the heart of this play, and played their roles with heartbreaking strength.
I heartily recommend you catch Richard III while you still can. I found being cold added another element to the performance that made it more challenging but ultimately more immersive. Gritty, powerful and innovative, it’s certainly a night I’ll never forget, certainly for the unusual setting but more for the superb performance. You’ll be seeing my open mouthed face in the audience for all future productions, Crude Apache.
In the current climate of political upheaval and the unexpected rise of a man like Donald Trump, who appears to be more interested in power, money and fame than looking after his citizens, and the fear of what that might mean for the rest of our world, the story of a king who lived over 600 years ago doesn’t seem so distant or historical after all. The scary thing is that Donald Trump is a distant cousin of Richard III. True fact. Let’s hope history doesn’t repeat itself because if it does we’re all in big trouble – although any henchmen looking for jobs will be in luck.
Lizz Page, Outline Magazine