The last production I saw of Richard III was at the Globe a few years ago, which happened to coincide with a huge thunderstorm that raged for most of the play; every dramatic moment was punctuated by a crash of thunder, and when the evil Richard met his end, the rain immediately stopped and the sun came out. (I’m not making this up, by the way; it was spooky.)
No such assistance from nature inside the Rosemary Branch, where Godot’s Watch’s production of Richard III runs until the 29th – but when it comes to creating atmosphere, no help is needed. This modern take on the murderous rise to power of Richard, Duke of Gloucester is a taut, gripping thriller that looks amazing and breathes new life (not to mention sex appeal) into a 500-year-old story.
On an empty stage illuminated by coloured strip lights, the throne of England awaits… but to claim it, Richard must first dispose of both his brothers. This he manages with worrying ease, before turning his attention to his two young nephews. With the help of Buckingham, who’s won over by the false promise of wealth and titles, Richard finally becomes King – but how long can he hold on to the throne?
An excellent cast is led by Sam Coulson as the villainous Richard. No hunchbacks here – instead a blood-red birthmark stains one side of his face, foreshadowing the horrors ahead. This is a performance that walks the line between smoothly charming and violently unhinged; one minute he’s sweet-talking the grieving widow of one of his victims into marrying him, the next he’s roaring with crazed delight over the success of his evil schemes. And throughout, he takes the audience regularly into his confidence, making us complicit in his crimes as he bumps off victim after victim.
The inclusion of Elena Clements as Richard’s co-conspirator Buckingham brings a welcome shot of girl power to a play in which every other woman is forced into the role of victim, and I also really enjoyed the twist that turned Gloucester’s two killers into one conflicted soul; Michael Rivers brilliantly channels Gollum as he argues with himself over the rights and wrongs of proceeding with the murder.
Director Séan Aydon clearly isn’t afraid to take a few risks in modernising the story – the use of Siri to find a hitman willing to murder Richard’s nephews gets a lot of laughs, and there’s more than one reference to drug use in the royal court. Not historically accurate, maybe – but then as we’ve seen all too well in recent months, the storyline of a tyrant doing whatever it takes to claim power is one that works just as well in a modern context…
Another star of the show is the lighting design from Jack Channer, and sound from Daniel Harmer, which combine to create an atmosphere of drama and tension throughout. From Richard’s opening soliloquy, which plays out in semi-darkness like a scene from a black and white movie, to the harsh white flashes that accompany his victims’ deaths, it’s an ingeniously simple approach that shows you don’t always need fancy effects or a complicated set to make a powerful impact.
Godot’s Watch is a new company, and if this is what we get from their first production then it’s exciting news for theatre. Their Richard III is inventive, bold and utterly gripping (and don’t just take my word for it; my friend turned to me at the interval and said, “Why have I never seen this play before? It’s amazing!”) – I can’t wait to see more from them, and hopefully soon.
Richard III is at the Rosemary Branch until 29th January.