Review: A tale that needs no gimmicks

Richard III
Photo: Scott Rylander
Richard III Photo: Scott Rylander

Oddly enough I came away from Peterborough Cathedral and the Antic Disposition production of Shakespeare’s Richard III with some words of Charles Dickens on my mind. At the beginning of A Tale of Two Cities Dickens famously wrote: ‘It was the best of times. it was the worst of times.’

For me, this summed up a show that was strong in almost all theatrical essentials. Taut and pacy direction, gripping acting, the simplest of props strewn carefully around the cathedral choir, a venue which was so much more evocative than any theatre ever could be.

Yet for me this production was also fatally flawed, hence the Dickens quote.

Costumes and accessories may seem relatively unimportant and peripheral but, as this most accessible of Shakespeare’s histories unfolded, they got more and more in the way of the play’s message.

By common consent, Richard III is about the ruthless pursuit of power, not to mention blood lust, manipulation, and cruelty. Tragically, these are universal characteristics of the human condition found in all ages and cultures.

However, the trophies and detritus of our own times are not. The mobile phones, headsets, reversed baseball caps, ripped jeans, and combat suits figuring in this production became for me a barrier to experiencing a play that needs no anachronisms, and no gimmicks. And how do you reconcile the medieval swords and daggers also used in this production with the contemporary items?

Having said that, I need to stress that the misconceived costumes and accessories apart, this was a production that included highly professional performances, lines delivered with crystal clear diction, and characters whose 
plight tugged at the heartstrings.

One by one, Richard’s victims made their appearance on stage, only to be mercilessly destroyed.

William de Coverly as Clarence was one of the first to go, but not before delivering a marvellously physical account of his sinister dream.

Hastings, played by Chris Courtenay, soon followed, but it was Joe Eyre as a slightly camp Buckingham who was the most impassioned and who made the strongest impression. As Lady Anne, Bryony Tebbutt moved from total contempt for Richard, to fascinated acceptance. Queen Margaret, played by Louise Templeton, was deadly in her passionate denunciations of the murderous king and, as his mother, Jill Stanford added still more curses and scorn.

Which leaves Toby Manley as the psychotic, homicidal king around whom all the other characters revolve. Light-voiced and slight in build Toby nevertheless presented a compelling and consistent portrait of Shakespeare’s super-villain, who understands nothing but the elimination of everyone who stands in his way.

REVIEW: JOE CONWAY