Kate Mulvany plays one of literature's greatest villains in Bell Shakespeare's reimagination of a classic
There’s been some controversy lately about women playing Shakespeare’s leading men, which – given men originally played the female parts – is as laughable as it is predictable. Bell Shakespeare’s latest production of Richard III casts the formidable Kate Mulvany in the role, and the only shock is how comfortably the play accommodates this gender swap.
Not that it really is a gender swap. Mulvany’s Richard is clearly a man; oily, duplicitous and vehemently misogynistic, he cajoles and seduces where he can, but is never far away from outright violence and hostility. It is a curious quirk of psychology that casting a woman in the role serves to reinforce and underline the character’s inherently masculine perversions: namely, his need to control and destroy both friend and foe in the pursuit of absolute power; his toxic refusal to engage emotionally other than as a mask to his will; his inability to accept any vulnerability, even to the point of inviting his own destruction. Richard is superb at wheedling his way to the crown, but utterly ill-equipped to lead or serve under it.
The contemporary resonances are obvious, but thankfully Peter Evans’ production doesn’t labour the point. In fact, it doesn’t even overtly make it. Outward political displays are eschewed in favour of inner psychological grievances, and the horror and sensuality of the character is given the interpretive space to terrorise and beguile on his own terms. Sure, this Richard conjures images of Trump, but also of Saddam Hussein and Stalin and Ceausescu.
The genius of the play is that Richard is both a product of his upbringing and a freak of nature, “scarce half made up” and therefore destined to bite the world. The play both fits into the Wars of the Roses history cycle and stands apart; it’s a perfect metaphor for the tangled familial cords that wrap around a villain who would be his own hero. Evans’ production, in close goose-step with Mulvany’s extraordinary performance, manages to suggest the ways a character is created by, and then devours, the rotting flesh of family.
Anna Cordingley’s design is magnificent. A single set – evoking a high-rolling penthouse at Crown, all art deco shell lights and plush chaises longues – serves as a funhouse turned prison. No character here is completely pure, and no one can escape once the bloodletting commences. Evans uses his ensemble to instantly suggest a world of seething nastiness, and every drink, every hand wrapped around a chair, conjures the decadent ruin that drives the play.
Like most Bell shows, the ensemble is uneven. Sandy Gore is marvellously, mellifluously regal as the cursed Margaret, and Rose Riley is as superb a doomed Anne as she is an equally ill-fated prince. Gareth Reeves is beautifully understated and poignant as Clarence, which seeps into his sympathetic Catesby, and James Evans is a convincingly charismatic Buckingham. Meredith Penman starts strongly as Elizabeth but becomes overwrought in the later scenes, and Sarah Woods strives too desperately for emotions she fails to evoke in the audience. The rest of the cast tend to fade into the background.
Of course, Richard III is all about the “bunch-backed toad” and Mulvany is almost definitive in the role, alive to the character’s slipperiness but also his vulnerability. This Richard’s brothers mock him and muss his hair, and even the young prince, his nephew, manages to physically intimidate and bully him. When he undresses, revealing the actor’s actual spinal curvature, the sense of a man genuinely belittled by the world is hard to shake. Only in the mock coronation scene does Mulvany overplay her hand, stooping to a hamminess that feels out of kilter with the steely conviction she displays elsewhere.
Tellingly, Mulvany is also the dramaturg on this production. She is clearly behind the brilliant decision to import large chunks of the text from Henry VI Part 3. This isn’t new – Olivier did the same with his 1955 film version – but here it is used to deepen the focus on Richard’s physicality. Even the Duchess of York is given a large part of Henry’s final curse, which lends a particular bitterness to “the butt end of a mother’s blessing”. Bell Shakespeare often butcher the texts in the pursuit of pace, but here every cut and addition is deliberate and effective. It’s the best thing Peter Evans has directed since taking over the helm from John Bell, and certainly a performance for the ages. If you don’t catch Mulvany’s “bottled spider”, you can expect to be reminded of your loss by those who did for years to come.
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