Richard III runs at the Genesian Theatre from March 9 – April 20 2013. By William Shakespeare, directed by Gary Dooley.
Genesian Theatre Company’s production of Richard III is an entertaining, if perhaps unadventurous, take on Shakespeare’s play. It is at its best when it embraces its own theatricality – these moments are fleeting, but when they occur, they are truly memorable.
Director Gary Dooley has set his Richard III in 1940s England, a time when (as in the historical period that the real Richard and co lived) the nation was rebuilding after a long and intense war. This is not a historically accurate 1940s, just as Richard is not a historically accurate Richard: it is a dream of the 1940s, evoking the uncertainties of the postwar world. Can there ever really be peace? The threat is no longer coming from an enemy, an othered outsider: instead, it comes from within the royal family itself. Roger Gimblett plays Richard like Scar from The Lion King, prowling about the stage as best as he can with his cane (this Richard has lost the use of one arm, presumably in the battles that occurred before the beginning of his play). He relishes his scheming, delighting in his own Machiavellian cleverness. This works very well in the first half of the play, but it means that his crisis of confidence in the second half seems very sudden. Richard’s unravelling is quite abrupt. It is well dramatised and theatrically engaging, but it was a very sharp twist in a character who apparently revelled in his own amorality.
There are some spectacular moments in this production –spectacular in the sense of spectacle, visually and theatrically remarkable. Richard’s coronation is one of these. Rivers’ execution at the end of the first half is another (this was just plain cool – it was a great note on which to send the audience to interval!). The gas masks in the battle are fantastically creepy. Perhaps the best of these spectacular moments is Richard’s dream, where the people he have killed come back to haunt him on the night before the Battle of Bosworth Field, telling him to despair and die. This spectacle is abetted by a simple and functional set. Some set changes were a little clunky, but when the set was in place, it worked beautifully. In the dream sequence, the dead appeared behind Venetian blinds, spookily lit in green. It was genuinely eerie.
Unfortunately, the production does not maintain this level of dynamicism. I’m not saying that every scene needs to be a spectacle, but there were other scenes in which I found my attention drifting. These were generally scenes heavy on the political machinations. Political machinations can be fascinating – if nothing else, we have learned this from Game of Thrones – but here, some of them felt laboured, slowing down the play’s momentum. At two hours and forty minutes, this production definitely feels too long. Classic as Richard III is, I feel it would have been a better show with some judicious trimming.
There were some really good performances in this production –I especially want to mention Hailey McQueen’s subtle yet wrenching portrayal of Lady Anne and Elizabeth McGregor’s determined and enraged Queen Elizabeth – but the real standout for me was Patrick Magee. He shone in the smaller roles, particularly as the murderer plagued by conscience and as the triumphant Earl of Richmond. I saw someone in the audience physically fistpump when he declared that the day was won, and I understood the impulse. I’ll be interested to see what Magee does next. Perhaps the oddest casting decision was the one to have the two young princes played by mannequin-esque puppets. I understand wanting to find an alternative to child actors, but I really don’t think “puppets” was the next logical place to go. My theatre date and I both grew up watching children’s TV in the 1990s, and the first thing we said to each other in interval was, “OMG THOSE PUPPETS WERE EC FROM LIFTOFF”. (For clarity, EC was a talking, faceless, possibly omnipotent doll. He was supposed to be a benevolent character, but in reality, he came off sinister and terrifying.) The puppet princes were bizarre at best. They robbed the death of the princes of a lot of emotional impact – it’s one thing to brutally execute a couple of children, but another to dispose of a few creepy mannequins.
I felt like there was more this production could have done. It could have been bolder in its reading: it was quite a straightforward and arguably cautious production of Shakespeare’s play. However, it was very engaging and it contained some moments of real theatrical spectacle. It’s not the most out-there production of Shakespeare you’ll ever see, but it’s definitely worth watching.