Barbican Theatre, London EC2
Opened 27 June, 1996

Steven Pimlott's production, greeted with much head-scratching last autumn at Stratford, remains a bewildering hotch-potch. It boasts both narrative and linguistic clarity (necessary but rare for Shakespearean histories), and a number of central performances which, whilst majestic, convey curiously little sense of majesty. And at its centre is David Troughton's interpretation of Richard Crookback of Gloucester as the consummate performer.

The scene in which Richard is pressed to accept the crown is played as a blatant piece of stage-management: we see Richard and two of his henchmen dressing up in priestly robes from a theatrical costume-trunk, and the supposedly fervent citizens restrained by armed men until he can complete his script of modest refusal turning to reluctant acquiescence. His opening monologue is delivered at first as a turn for onlookers from the victorious House of York, with Richard kitted out in jester's cap and stick. When he opens his mouth for the first line, he is interrupted by a fanfare. On the press night, the showmanship went further: immediately before this moment, Troughton could not resist delivering a mock-baleful glare at a latecomer in the front row.

This Richard never switches off: he is always assuming a role, always delivering lines rather than speaking words pointing up rhymes and giving full Shakespearean two-syllable scansion to words ending in "-tion" to the point where he seems to be uttering sardonic doggerel. Dressed in flaming red, he aims for the impish appeal of the Vice in a mediaeval morality play.

The net effect is that tragedy is something which happens, if at all, around Richard rather than to him. Tobias Hoheisel's set composed largely of a livid green, blasted plain with a single stunted tree (more Godot than Gloucester) and an upstage closet-cum-truck which serves as a variety of courts and council chambers also contains an area demarcated as a kind of limbo. Here the ghosts of those unfortunates dispatched by Gloucester periodically congregate; Queen Anne's death is signified by Rachel Sanders walking with slow resignation from the court into this shaded quarter, a move later repeated by Richard himself after the battle of Bosworth Field. The battle is not presented at all: Richard crosses an empty stage to sit in darkness, slowly and ironically applauding Henry of Richmond's closing victory speech.

There are a few earlier hints that even this capering monster may have a conscience, notably in conflicts with his mother (whom, unfortunately, Diana Coupland renders as more petulant than wrathful), though to all intents and purposes Richard's despair comes out of nowhere. The supernatural dream on the eve of Bosworth is staged with Richard and Henry sitting side by side at a council table as the succession of shades file in to damn and bless them respectively, but the scene remains mechanistic when it should be potent; the audience has been shown hardly any indication of a "real" Richard, and so does not engage with his downfall.

Michael Siberry makes a noble, lyrical Clarence, and Paul Bentall's Hastings is one of the few loci of humanity; moreover, Richard's outburst against Hastings, sending him scurrying under the table as Crookback pummels a bag of strawberries into pulp, is virtually the only occasion on which we see his malevolence unbridled. John Nettles growls and looms obligingly as Buckingham, but to my mind Nettles on stage whether in Shakespeare or pantomime is always visibly doing acting. Rachel Sanders is handicapped as the Lady Anne in that she is never able to make the dramatic running; her central confrontation with Richard, in which he woos her over the body of her dead husband, begins as an evenly matched rhetorical stand-off but, bereft of either sexual or violent tension, merely subsides by rote.

Imposing interpretative concepts upon plays too often means that a particular aspect works magnificently at the expense of the whole tapestry. Pimlott's Richard III is a case in point: the magnitude and relentlessness of Troughton's performance leaves little room for us to glimpse the spirit either of Richard or anyone else.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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