Shakespeare’s dark tale of the last Plantagenet king of England is a complex work, and the Bard’s second longest play after Hamlet. It is a bold challenge for any theatre company, but long established itinerant Norwich collective Crude Apache love nothing more than a tough challenge.
Director Tim Lane chose to increase the challenge by shunning either traditional costume or even a normal stage setting and built on recent Crude Apache successes like Zastrozzi with a very close relationship between audience and performers. The location is a derelict corner of the huge old St Mary’s Works at the corner of St Mary’s Plain and Oak Street, in a building which I seem to recall being the home of “Hymns Ancient and Modern’ in a previous life. The space is rough, large and unheated. It looks like a squatted building, so it seems appropriate that the costumes for the hard working cast reflect those of the ever larger population of homeless people in our city in these heartless times.
The well known facts about Richard Duke of Gloucester’s rise to the throne are not very edifying, and a visitor from another planet could rightly be baffled by our contemporary adherence to this perverse form of governance by inheritance. Shakespeare clearly wanted to make the most of Richard’s evil side. He was almost certainly a deeply unpleasant and ambitious person, but some of his innovations were definite milestones in improving the fair government of the country and earlier his stronghold around York.
Shakespeare brings us the blood, gore, death, revenge and corruption that so often marks a man’s ascent to high office. He suffered from idiopathic scoliosis, a twisting deformation of the spine confirmed when his corpse was finally unearthed recently from beneath a Leicestershire car park. He perhaps felt some need as an obviously disabled person to press his point a little more strongly than the average despot whether in matters of love or war. At least, Shakespeare tells us so.
At the start this production can seem bewilderingly complex, with a small cast covering a colossal range of characters with swift and seamless changes. It is worth a look at the story before you come to the show. It is a long and bleak show in a very cold space – take a blanket and whatever warms you up (that you can use in public). It is worth the discomfort. Tim Lane and his energetic troupe have scored another Crude Apache hit with a production that lays bare the machinations and murder that make a monarch in Fifteenth Century England.
There are uncomfortable parallels with modern political life, from the distrust of foreigners (those pesky Bretons, since you ask) to the utter disregard for the happiness and security of our fellow citizens shown by those most ambitious to rule over us.
Russell J Turner gives us a masterclass in how to perform Shakespeare’s most complex villain, Richard – Duke of Gloucester who succeeds to the throne as Richard lll for an all-too-brief reign which ends in as bloody a manner as it begins. Richard did not lack courage in pursuit of his ambition, being the last English King (to date) to die in battle. While we know his end it is the journey to the coronation that preoccupies this play and bloody it is indeed. Russell hobbles around the performing space with a look in his eye that makes his relentless purpose clear to all, it seems, but those about to perish at his command or whim. He portrays a man who is so focused that he can reject the counsel of all those close to him, even his own troubled mother.
His chief ally in seeking the throne, The Duke of Buckingham, is played with huge energy by Leighton Williams. They laugh and plot together until that inevitable moment when Richard’s favour is withdrawn.
Richard is named Lord Protector of his twelve year old nephew Edward V when his own brother King Edward IV dies but his ‘protection’ involves the incarceration and disappearance of the nephew and his brother after they have been deemed illegitimate and therefore unfit for succession to the throne. Melanie Fiander gives a particularly engaging performance as Queen Elizabeth, mother of the disappeared Princes, who cannot escape the tyrannical King’s demands.
The eleven strong cast cover over forty separate and distinct characters and each of them help to enhance the long held Crude Apache reputation for great acting and superb timing. It speaks volumes about the tone of this play that one of the lighter moments is when the two murderers (Joanna Swan and Jenny Belsey) are going about their task with gruesome relish. The production makes use of the space and reflects the temporary and industrial nature of the building, with torches as follow-spots and stacked pallets and steel screens forming a vestigial set. The audience surrounds the set in a close, intimate layout that leaves no hiding place. We are even warned to be careful where we put our drinks down when the action starts! The venue may be temporary but there is a handsome bar and a gallery of the performers to enliven the two intervals.
From the very first line Shakespeare’s text for Richard III is full of well known lines that have become part of the phrase and fable of everyday life, and their endurance is a clue to the popularity of this great play. Crude Apache enhance the text with a distinctive and memorable realisation that should not be missed.
In an appropriate gesture the company have decided to donate a part of their profits to the Emmaus homeless charity, so take your blanket and a bit of spare change down to St Mary’s Plain and be rewarded with an unforgettable Shakespearian epic of our historic past.