Review: Richard III, Tobacco Factory Theatre, Bristol
From a public relations point of view, Richard III is very much “on trend”. It was only earlier this month that a skeleton discovered in a car park in Leicester was confirmed to be that of the 15th-century king. And thanks to Hilary Mantel’s double-Booker-winning series about the reign of Henry VIII, the UK has become a country of historians.
So the director of this Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory production of Shakespeare’s Richard III, Andrew Hilton, is wise to dress his actors in Tudor costume. It gives the production something of a Wolf Hall feel to it.
John Mackay takes on the central role, and in his hands the murderous upstart king becomes something altogether more interesting: we get the sense that he doesn’t take anything seriously. He has realised the essential pointlessness of life and has decided, therefore, to have his fun.
In the famous opening ‘Now is the winter of our discontent’ speech there’s a new cynicism. Gone is the wounded ambition: it’s replaced by a superiority which laughs at the value the world places on ‘victorious wreaths’. He is a gambling king who measures up the challenge of chatting up the woman whose husband he has killed – and likes the odds. He lists his achievements and taunts the incredulous audience with the question ‘can I do this and not get a crown?’
Between them, Hilton and Mackay squeeze every drop of comedy out of this play – and it turns out there are plenty of laughs. Mackay’s Richard is impish: he peers into a bag he’s been handed with the head of the courtier Hastings inside – ‘Good morning, Hastings!’ he trills and as he slopes off stage he makes as if to throw the bag into the audience. After seducing Anne he turns – incredulous at his success to ask ‘Was ever woman in this humour won?’. Like all the best evil characters, Mackay’s Richard is a joy to watch.
All of which rather drowns out the rest of this very strong cast. Alan Coveney is affecting as the over-trusting Hastings, Paul Currier proves a slippery Duke of Buckingham and Dorothea Myer-Bennett manages to make Anne – who marries Richard – not only sympathetic but empathetic. The women in this production are not won over by Richard, they are not dazzled by his word-wizardry, rather they are psychologically beaten in to submission, forced into a corner and made to believe he is their only way out.
But even this cast cannot disguise the fact that Shakespeare’s play may as well be a one-man show – which is both its strength and its weakness. Richard is one of Shakespeare’s most vividly painted characters, a cartoonish devil wreaking havoc on England. But to allow this character the space he needs to strut and fret, the supporting cast are reduced to Richard’s play things. Hilton has created an elegant, deftly handled production of one of Shakespeare’s more flawed plays. But this is not a stripped-down portrayal of an enigmatic king: for that you’ll need to go to Leicester.
Shakespeare’s ‘Richard III’ is at Bristol’s Tobacco Factory Theatre until 30 March