• The Arts •
• Theatre •
Director: Roxana Silbert
The Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Until 15 September.
In 2008, the RSC’s Histories Cycle, directed by Michael Boyd, transferred from the Courtyard Theatre to London’s Roundhouse. This marathon ensemble project set a new standard for approaching Shakespeare’s histories, plays in which the dazzle of a steely and bloody realpolitik can make it easy to lose sight of the ways in which both tetralogies take on the ultimate theme of nationhood – or more precisely, how to live both in and for a nation. For this year’s World Shakespeare Festival, however, the RSC has moved decisively away from the broad canvas approach of 2008, in favour of smaller, themed programming. Their Richard III (directed by Roxana Silbert) is part of the ‘Nations at War’ trilogy, along with King John and a new Mexican play by Luis Mario Moncada, A Soldier in Every Son – The Rise of the Aztecs. This curated trilogy focuses on the dramatic potential of wavering loyalties within families; the ambivalent and conflict-ridden pull between love and power.
“At the heart of Richard III is his relationship with his family,” Silbert says, and the production handles its royal domesticity effectively, opening with a scene more reminiscent of family reunion than of national triumph. A domesticated focus may seem to offer the possibility of a more accessible history play – desirable for directors, since the challenge in production at this late date is undoubtedly audiences’ limited knowledge of the Wars of the Roses. Programme notes will only go so far. The period is little studied, and the Shakespearean method – which often involves the condensing of multiple source accounts from chronicles and narrative poetry into a single play – produces a type of dramatic historiography which, for all its raw emotional intensity, remains factually complex. The intimate immediacy of the Swan Theatre, also, works well: Jonjo O’Neill, an energetic and comical Richard, generally enters and exits through the audience, and there is an authentic discomfort in the knowledge that he has been lurking in the dark, somewhere behind one’s back.
On the whole, however, the production feels unanchored, as though a great many strong ideas have been mixed together with too little attention to the play’s real shape and meaning. The acting is consistently good, at times breath-taking – O’Neill’s power over Pippa Nixon’s tortured Lady Anne is almost tangible, and Paola Dionisotti is a superb Margaret – and the fights, designed by Terry King, are striking and suggestive of genuine violence. The modern-dress costumes are less successful, though, seeming to bear little connection to the production’s wider thematics, and there is a lingering sense of directorial confusion. Richard III is a play that already has almost too much of everything, especially blood, and it demands a clearcut vision to be as successful as it can be at times – that is what Silbert’s production lacks, though it has panache a-plenty.
It is afterwards that one feels faintly dissatisfied, when the moment-to-moment vacillations between rumbustious comedy and bloody horror should begin to settle into a whole. In watching this Richard III, the dominant impression is one of theatre carried off as well as we expect from the RSC, and it is perhaps fair to say that such criticisms of the production as have arisen derive more from the critic’s unnaturally retrospective vision than from audiences generally. Its placement in the abbreviated ‘Nations at War’ trilogy does not preclude great enjoyment of Roxana Silbert’s production, though some will mourn for the greater richness of the full Histories Cycle.
Chloe Stopa-Hunt graduated in 2010 with a BA in English from New College, Oxford. She is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.