Review: Richard III at Temple Church

Antic Disposition certainly know how to make a good first impression. Temple Church, their home for the next two weeks, is another majestic, beautiful and powerfully historic setting for the company’s production of Shakespeare’s Richard III – and brings to an end their most recent tour of some of the UK’s most stunning cathedrals.

Fortunately, the awe-inspiring venue is more than matched by the quality of the show, which is utterly absorbing from start to finish. Based on the probably completely untrue history of Richard, Duke of Gloucester, the play recounts his bloody path to the throne as he gradually eliminates every other heir in his way, before being defeated at Bosworth Field by the future King Henry VII.

This modern interpretation reimagines the royal family and their entourage as well-heeled city types, and even without the little topical details – which include a comedy mayor called Boris, and a competitive handshake Donald Trump would be proud of – the point being made is clear. Our leaders may no longer send each other to the executioner’s block, but the ruthlessness of those who seek power for their own ends is just as dangerous today as it was 500 years ago.

At the head of a fantastic cast is Toby Manley as the murderous monarch, in a performance so charming that it’s easy to see how he keeps getting his way. Watching him, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Andrew Scott’s Moriarty in Sherlock; he plays his part so well that you can forget how evil he actually is – if not for the occasional furious outbursts that expose the crazed ambition lurking within. And in case that doesn’t do the job, a glance down the aisle reveals a silent army of vengeful ghosts, as each of Richard’s victims rises from the grave to take his or her place and wait for an opportunity to have their revenge.

This simple yet powerfully effective device from directors Ben Horslen and John Risebero not only helps keep track of the rising body count, but also contributes to the play’s sense of impending doom as we build towards a spine-tingling climax. And they’re not alone, as Louise Templeton’s Queen Margaret, draped in the flag of her dead husband and son’s royal house, appears regularly on stage like Hamlet’s ghost to ensure justice is done.

Perhaps surprisingly in a play so full of violence, there’s also a lot of humour, in the dramatic, semi-hysterical posturing of Joe Eyre’s Buckingham, who could be mistaken for a radical religious preacher as he makes the speech that secures Richard’s place on the throne. And Robert Nairne’s Catesby, who’s transformed for this production into a no-nonsense security man, enjoys some fun interaction with the audience as he hands out flags for the young princes’ arrival, before smugly presenting the two moody teenagers with an XBox to keep them quiet.

It’s clear from both the production and the directors’ programme notes that there’s a topical subtext to be found in Antic Disposition’s interpretation of Richard III. But this message is applied subtly enough – for the most part – that anyone who simply wants to see an excellent and very accessible production of Shakespeare’s historical play will find themselves more than satisfied. It takes some doing to put together a performance so gripping that it can distract from such an amazing venue – but while the setting certainly adds atmosphere, the true star of this show is the show itself.

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Review: Richard III at the Rosemary Branch

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.

Photo credit: Caroline Galea
Photo credit: Caroline Galea

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 S√©an 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.

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