26th July 2015, matinee
After the recent pomp of the reinternment of the king found unceremoniously buried under a car park in the centre of Leicester there has arisen fresh investment in Richard III, and Curve has unashamedly jumped on the bandwagon with this community production of arguably Shakespeare’s most renowned history play. The posters advertise ‘Leicester’s story continues’, an ambiguous tagline perhaps – especially as director Nikolai Foster relocates the play to contemporary Russia – yet fitting in the sense that, despite the theatre being under new creative direction, Foster follows in his predecessor, Paul Kerryson’s, footsteps in the annual staging of productions which showcase and celebrate the talent of Leicester’s citizens.
The enduring challenge of restaging Shakespeare’s 400 year old text is resolved in Foster’s decision to set the play in Russia, highlighting contemporary institutionalised corruption. While this interpretation may seem unoriginal (there seems to be a current trend in staging Shakespeare within a Russian context, as recently seen in Cheek By Jowl’s brutal Measure for Measure) and Putin’s Russia an easy target, the concept works. Richard’s cronies are icy, unreadable and ruthless, dressed almost exclusively in black, they bear stark contrast to the colourful Woodville yuppies, Rivers, Grey and Vaughan. Foster does not shy away from violence as murders are carried out in the unflinching fashion of mob style professional executions. While the corruption runs deep on a political level, the transformation of Richard’s executioners into desperate, drug-fuelled thugs (played with brilliant twitchiness by Daniel Simpson and Becca Cooper), insist upon the deep set rot befallen an entire nation prey to the games of its hungry aristocracy.
Matthew Wright’s design heightens this sense of rot; a lone chandelier hangs from broken ceiling panels, a halo representing what the noble aristocracy once stood for while simultaneously reflecting the decadent waste the state has fallen into. The traverse stage is sparsely set, bookended by rough concrete facades, faint graffiti reads ‘Richard’ looming large over the stage, and dust-caked shoes encircle the playing space, evidence of the expendability of life, the fallen victims that litter the path to glory. And the victims come thick and fast. The production’s unwavering brutality culminates in the explosive final staging of the Battle of Bosworth. Unleashing pyrotechnics galore, amid the gunfire bombs explode mere inches from the unsuspecting audience (it must be a health and safety nightmare!), igniting the battle with a sense of real urgency and panic, an urgency which is highlighted further in Grant Olding’s score featuring sudden bursts of techno beats, viciously pulsating.
For all the technical whiz bang of Foster’s production, ultimately the success of Shakespeare lies in the language and the actors’ ability in grappling with the sometimes difficult text. For this cast, enthusiasm and vigour more than make up for the occasional lapse in diction. Mark Peachey’s Richard is thrillingly tragic, displaying all the charisma, villainy and dry humour required of the title character. He moves from oddly appealing in his soliloquys, the audience his (un)willing confidantes, to bare faced audacity in his Machiavellian manipulations and betrayals, to pitiable in his conflicted groans following the appearance of the ghosts of his victims. Peachey shines bright amidst the highly capable cast as, once again, Leicester has proven to be a trove of talent.
Curve’s staging of Richard III is a timely celebration of one of Shakespeare’s most tragic and villainous characters and the community which has taken the somewhat ambiguous king to heart of late.
Richard III plays at Curve, Leicester until 9th August 2015.