Touring – reviewed at Bristol Old Vic (at Alexandra Palace, London 13-31 March 2019)
Truly great acting is rare to see on stages these days, the type that elevates good work into a higher form of art. Yet right now at Bristol Old Vic, Tom Mothersdale’s Tricky Dicky, Richard III, is music, verse and sculpture of the highest order. Switching from joviality to death skewing psychotic in one basilisk stare, Mothersdale’s ‘poisonous bunch-back’d toad’ can join Olivier, Sher and McKellen on the Mount Rushmore of truly great Crookbanks.
Mothersdale has been slowly making waves over the past couple of years, a director’s actor who over the past two years alone has found himself working with Carrie Cracknell, Katie Mitchell and James Macdonald. Yet here, stepping up into a showpiece role, he graduates from one of our most interesting young actors to the gold standard, one that other actors will worship at the altar of.
From our first introduction to him, standing with his back to us, alone, centre stage and gradually curving himself into twisted, deformed shape you can’t take your eyes off him. This version does not begin with the ‘Now is the winter of our discontent’ speech but with Richard assassinating Henry VI in the tower. It reminds us that the play is not a stand-alone piece but a concluding part of a tetralogy, a Game of Thrones box set hundreds of years before that behemoth took hold. It also shows us that this is a Richard as terrifying as any Night King.
What makes Mothersdale’s work so astonishing is its detail of approach and clarity of demonstration. Every line reaches the back of the house, each change of thought and move of intention crystalline clear. He has that uncanny knack, like a Mark Rylance or Simon Russell Beale, of making the language seem fresh minted, that he is free-forming language as quickly as plans pop into his head.
He juggles both sides of the theatrical mask so well. His is a truly funny Richard, every raised eyebrow or aside raising more hoots than most comedic plays I’ve seen. It’s like if Lee Evans decided one day to murder his way through the House of Windsor and provided stand-up as he ticked his way through. Yet for all the laughs it’s in the death stares that the real man comes out, looking right through a person to his final goal, all collateral damage on the way to the throne.
Once he obtains the crown there is nowhere further to go, a game player who has reached the summit and finds it is lonely at the top. From this point on he turns tragedian, a man destroyed by his Mum, haunted by his victims and left alone on the final battlefield. Caking himself in mud, he fights his final battle with weary resignation that his time has come. A final neck snap is a definitive way to bring his reign of terror to an end. My only slight caveat would be that the rest of the ensemble gets rather lost in Mothersdale’s rear view mirror though Steffan Adegbola’s smooth operator statesman Buckingham has his moments and Heledd Gwynn is as watchable as she was last year in Henry V, though slightly wasted.
Mothersdale reigns supreme then but John Haidar’s smart production isn’t completely overshadowed. Working with designer Chiara Stephenson and lighting designer Elliot Griggs, they have put a wall of mirrors at the back of the stage that reflects twisted Richard back at him every time he turns around. It is little wonder he is so front facing. Played at a brisk pace, each mirror becomes both entrance and exit, a revolving door system that suggests a world changing at an ever-increasing pace, and of an opportunist riding an elevator that shows no sign of slowing. Only in the battle as he tries to escape to the mirrored doors remain resolutely shut. Suddenly Richard can’t move onto his next thing, he has to confront the present, a man always living for the next step suddenly finding there is no place further to go.
Each act of ever-increasing violence is heightened with a jump cut of light and a rumbling sound, be it a heart attack, stabbing or gunshot. The violence is visceral and bloody, in one moment Richard clamps down on Hastings’ neck like Nosferatu smelling blood. The final fight between Richard and Richmond is scrappy and nasty; gouges, headbutts and chocking, two men scrapping for their lives. It’s theatre that is alive and exciting, deliberately messy at times but well-thought through and allows Shakespeare to compete on the same level of any prestige Netflix show. Haidar, in his first big main stage production, has grasped his opportunity with both hands and delivered spectacularly.
Before the show, Tom Morris AD of Bristol Old Vic talked about the challenges regional theatres faced in making work that can become industry talking points. Well, this Richard deserves to be seen far and wide, a night where an actor took a step to becoming a great and a Shakespeare that gave as much bang for your buck as any Marvel movie. Regional theatre is alive and well and Richard III proves it.