Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Opened 23 July, 2003

The figure who emerges through the curtains to announce "Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer..." is straight-backed and nimble, clad in buff morning coat and matching top hat. He cues the band, cuts a caper or two... then his leg gives way under him, and he removes his outer clothing to reveal a network of orthopaedic straps into which he fastens his left arm, as he adopts the more familiar posture for the character. In the opening minutes, Henry Goodman transforms himself into Richard Crookback before our very eyes.

And that's pretty much the last really interesting thing that happens in Sean Holmes' RSC production of Richard III. The next three and a quarter hours in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre contain a lot of surface acting, no great insights and a few assorted misjudgements. Are the company costumed in Victorian dress because the melodrama is being played up, or Edwardian to suggest the inevitable slide towards a major war? Or for some other reason entirely? Search me. One by-product, though, is that all male courtiers are more or less identically clad in sombre grey, which does nothing to clarify all the factionism and politicking. I overheard an audience member remark during the interval, "Well, they're all like each other; it's difficult to remember them all."

Goodman's Richard always has one eye on the audience; when he enters in his coronation robes, the first thing he does is give us a twirl of his ermine. He scoots and scampers everywhere, and the combination of high speed and hobble lends an exaggeration which suggests he's playing Crookback's gait for laughs. At one point, when he hirples off in high dudgeon, he reminds me momentarily of Dame Edna Everage. By and large, though, this Richard is an overgrown, attention-grabbing brat rather than a coldly scheming tyrant.

Few of the other male players make an impression. Of the women, Maureen Beattie is an impressive Queen Elizabeth, but Sheila Reid squanders her powerful start as the vengeful Margaret of Anjou by wildly overplaying her guttural Gallic R's so that she just becomes annoying. Holmes gets the story across, more or less, but there's no sense of anything going on underneath. Richard IIIs haven't exactly been thin on the ground of late, and there's really no reason for devoting your time and money to seeing this one rather than any other.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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