Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon – until 8 October 2022
The winter of discontent made glorious summer is ushered in with a wild conga round the stage under helium balloons, one of which the newest RSC Richard furiously squeaks and bursts with practised deftness during his opening speech. That endearing levity of staging, though, is the last and only anachronistic gimmick in this magnificent production: mostly it is a wide bare stage beneath a brick tower on which great important shadows are cast.
No onstage camera or projection this time until briefly at the very end; no directorial vanities or nonsenses. Sometimes a boy treble sings or a trumpet calls from overhead; in the final battle an extraordinary physical coup turns the ghosts of Richard’s victims into the very horse that throws him to his doom and carries the victor over him. Mostly we see what Shakespeare offered us: human players crossing and recrossing the stage, speaking, striking out, spitting, flinching, defying.
For this is director Gregory Doran, retiring RSC leader, doing what he does better than any of his generation: showing with love and care, scholarship and flair, how very fine Shakespeare’s play always was in both language and construction. We all know now, as obedient historians, that the Richard lately disinterred from a Leicester car park is grievously slandered in it: but who cares when such a tale is told with such vigour?
Breathtaking, with a speed of event that many a dragging TV binge-series should envy, we have the wooing of Anne by her husband’s murderer over his very corpse, the terrifying curses of old Queen Margaret, Minnie Gale hurling around a yard-long sweep of silver hair; poor Clarence’s nightmare and murder, moving but blackly comic, the old King’s collapse, treachery, a grisly head of Hastings (the RSC is getting too good at this, the prop store must be a shocker).
We have a populist acclamation involving – no spoilers – rather magnificent joke when two monastic hoods are dropped. And through it all runs the susurration of court politics: unease, hope, ambition, uncertain loyalties and – served with genius in this production – the anger, pain and defiance of the women who are mourning father, husband, sons, confronting the entangled monstrosities of past and present murders. The scenes between Queens Elizabeth and Margaret and the Duchess of York, mother to Richard, are breathtaking, their direct defiances and curses shake the room; Kirsty Bushell’s Elizabeth, the last one to defy Richard’s intentions, is particularly and marvellously subtle.
But every part shines in its moments, whether in laughter or shock: everything contributes, whether a neat strawberry-related smirk from the Bishop of Ely or a sudden tremor from Jamie Wilkes’ Buckingham when tasked with a murder too far. There has been obvious interest in the casting of Arthur Hughes, just turned 30, who has a congenital right-arm “difference” and so becomes the first RSC Richard to be actually “cheated of feature by dissembling nature” with a visible difference. But it is important to say that Hughes brings far more to the role than that slight appropriate disability. His talent, application and voice are fully of RSC standard but also he has youth, and spring, and above all an innate cheeky playfulness which entirely suits Shakespeare’s most arresting psychopath.
He is splendid in his disgraceful wooing of Anne over her husband’s very bier, gives the moments of rage an unsettling hysterical edge and the smooth joking pretences an even more unsettling charm. He summons barks of shocked laughter with Richard’s astonishing excuses (he admits to being “unadvised and times” regarding the murders of twochildren, various other relatives and his wife: the timing is such that we gasp, as intended. Tiresomely fashionable to draw modern parallels, but there is a moment when he is confronted repeatedly by Queen Elizabeth over his murder of her two little boys, and in sudden boredom he snaps “harp not upon that string ma’am, that is past”. OK, I admit to hearing a chime of some partygate dismissals.
But that sort of reflection – and even the far bigger reflection of the hubris and murderousness of our own age’s Putin – is the least of it. Take this as purest Shakespearian tragedy: vigorous but classic, a magnificent magnification of the darkest human and political longing, of affection, terror, defensiveness, hubris and – in the women – a defiant courage that rings down the ages. Don’t miss this one.
Rsc.org.uk to 8 october