Kate Mulvany plays one of literature's greatest villains in Bell Shakespeare's reimagination of a classic
They don’t make villains like they used to. Even celebrity baddies in the James Bond franchise rarely seem to be really enjoying themselves, perhaps distracted by Armageddon. Back in Elizabeth I’s day, bad guys on stage put pride and effort into their work, even to the point of gleefully celebrating how much wrongdoing they can get away with.
In the 1580s Christopher Marlowe made a business in hyperactive, almost robotic villains; Shakespeare had to compete with them, and with his genius also managed to make these despicable characters human and even sympathetic. Shylock in the comedy The Merchant of Venice is the saddest result, but in The Tragedy of KingRichard III he bestowed the greatest potential for enjoyment. Bell Shakespeare’s Richard 3 tidies up this great sprawling historical drama, keeps the tragedy on its roll, and puts the fun back into its anti-hero lead.
To turn a series of real-life historical murders among extended royal families into an entertaining spectator sport requires an actor strong enough to persuade the audience to join in a conspiracy against the other characters and to delight jointly in their suffering. Crucially, in the title role of the physically and morally repulsive Richard, Kate Mulvany’s boyish charm proves irresistible. Even before the famous opening line “Now is the winter of our discontent” is spoken, she has convincingly presented her character in posture and gesture, and we have already signed on to his agenda of dynastic troublemaking.
This meticulous deployment of overwhelming theatrical strength in the service of a canonical masterwork is a significant core achievement for Bell Shakespeare. Much debate could revolve around the fact that it was done by a woman in a very masculine role, but few would deny it was very well done. Many Richards get stuck in the mire of his cartoonish hunchback; Mulvany delivers him in florid deformity as both real and intensely dramatic. She is also a playwright and is credited here as dramaturg, but the reputation she has already established as one of our finest artists could have been made on this performance alone.
Shakespeare's elaborate plot arranges Richard’s many royal victims like bowling pins. A few have offended themselves: the diagram in the program is helpful if you want to figure out who parented, married and murdered whom. But you don't have to. The bunch is highly articulate in their outrage and cursing; it’s a pleasure to hear some of the most elaborate insults in English literature so beautifully delivered here by the excellent cast, conspicuously Sandy Gore as the termagant Queen Margaret. As Lady Anne, Rose Riley punctuates her capitulation to Richard’s offer of marriage (famously over the coffin of her husband whom he recently killed) with heartrending sobbing, contrasting with the highly formal rhetoric of victimhood in the play.
Richard 3 is a version thoroughly edited for clarity, effect and ease of presentation. The historically famous princes in the tower are condensed into a single child. Many of Shakespeare's locations are concentrated into a stylish and elegant Edwardian drawing room by designer Anna Cordingley. Composer Steve Toulmin powerfully deploys Handel’s 1727 coronation anthem 'Zadok the Priest', as well as the famous 1916 hymn using William Blake’s poem 'Jerusalem'.
Some of the finest poetry in the play is Richard’s frequent waxing lyrical about his own superlative badness. The worst part of watching any production of Richard III in 2017 is that we involuntarily detect Shakespeare referring to Donald Trump, in lines such as “Plead what I will be, not what I have been; not my deserts but what I will deserve.” Trump’s self-aggrandising statements such as “I think I’m much more humble than you would understand” must have haunted rehearsals.
Mercifully director Peter Evans ends up with minimal support for the connection: relocating the action to Washington, or streaming lines like “I thank God for my humility” on a back-projected Twitter feed would be a painful mistake. To support the Trump analogy would be to betray the Bard: Richard has little in common with Donald beyond narcissism, a hatred of his enemies, and a voracious will to power unrestrained by principles. Although much of this rather Roman play concerns moral and political struggles, all of which is well conveyed by the fine cast, this production is very much about its Richard, and with Mulvany wearing the crown, that’s a very good thing.