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Richard III Review (Ensemble, Sydney)


The real Richard III was king of England for just two years, thanks to being cut down in his prime (he was 33) at the Battle of Bosworth Field, the final struggle in the War of The Roses; one that flagged the end of the Middle Ages.  That was back in the day (the late 15th century), when monarchs were inclined to fight their own battles, or left with little option. 

Like many of our own leaders, R3 was a slippery character, with eyes firmly on the prize. Director Mark Kilmurry, who has bravely cast himself in the lead, manages to out the notion (though perhaps still not enough) that Richard, a man we’d now think of as severely disabled, proves a monster because he’s been deemed and, thus, made so by those around him: friends, relatives and strangers alike. Perhaps Kilmurry’s thesis is that R3 was a monster we had to have; the monster we deserved.

Kilmurry has made things lively by having the action set in a bunker. On appearances, it could be an underground hideout in Soviet-era Russia, Iran, North Korea, al-Qaeda, Jemaah Islamiyah, or ISIS HQ, or even down under. It could pass as the Liberal Party’s nerve centre, except I’m sure they’d have better office furniture. No credit’s given for set (or costume) design, so I presume the dingy vision of detritus is the erstwhile, up-and-coming king’s.

At top-left we can see a CCTV image, the cameras trained on any intruders, should they materialise. There’s a short stack of decrepit televisions, a table and chairs and, atop the table, a padded chair that suffices as a throne. Behind the table are,racks of clothing where the performers hang their civvies, while they variously don an array of secondhand garments.

There is no pretence made about the players playing and every so often the action is paused because, for example, a helicopter is passing overhead, or an approaching siren can be heard. And so we seem to be voyeurs: watching enthusiastic amateurs stage a Shakespearean production as if their lives depended on it, even though by so doing their very lives appear to be threatened. This clever conceit is one of the strengths of the production and it’s probably saved a bundle on production expenses, as there’s every excuse to skimp; indeed, the premise means it needs to look as if everything’s been done on a shoestring. And so, little more than a sheet suffices as a regal cloak; no bones are made about a cheap, plastic crown; weapons are lengths of wood.

When viewing a production of R3, a knowledge of early-to-middle English history is a definite advantage and Shakespeare, writing around a century after Richard’s brief reign, assumes quite a lot of knowledge. One wonders how the inebriated, uneducated riffraff at The Globe would’ve coped. As it is, I’ve difficulty and I’m neither entirely uneducated, nor continuously inebriated, try as I might. This situation is compounded by the financial necessity of having a small ensemble of actors play a large number of parts. Following can require supreme concentration, as the action moves apace.

Georgie Parker was slated to play Queen Margaret, but, for whatever reason, was a no-show. The fine-boned Danielle Carter plays Queen Elizabeth, a woman surrounded by aspirant repos and a sworn nemesis of Richard. Carter’s carriage and clarity makes her a very fitting queen, husbanded by the exceptionally versatile Matt Edgerton as King Edward, older sibling of Edward and Clarence, who Edgerton also plays.

The extent of Edgerton’s versatility is brought home comically laterwhen, playing both Ratcliff and Catesby, the presence of both more-or-less simultaneously required, he switches characters merely by putting on and taking off specs, as well as putting on and taking off a different dialect and demeanour. It’s milked for laughs, with Kilmurry doing double-takes, as characters are instantaneously swapped. It leavens the work and momentarily relieves the strenuousness of keeping up with the plot. Carter also makes for a surprisingly youthful-looking innocent, in the form of Prince Edward, one of the nephews Richard unceremoniously and cold-bloodedly despatches to the tower.

Patrick Dickson is solid as Buckingham, Richard’s credulously loyal servant who hopes to share in the booty, but is cruelly excised from his ‘just reward’. Amy Mathews has as many roles as Edgerton and grapples with the workload with the same unshakeable aplomb. As Lady Anne, the young widow of Prince Edward, she gives a classic, stylised performance, wearing her grief heavily, but in a ‘literary’ or ‘dramatic’ way, rather than with any naturalistic intent. She sounds mellifluous, with ideal diction that stood in contrast to Kilmurry’s sometimes strangled, sometimes lisping, sometimes rushed delivery.

A charismatic Toni Scanlan makes e for an appropriately haughty, high-minded Duchess of York, as well as a naughty scoundrel, as the ‘first murderer’. As with Mathews and Edgerton, she had generous scope to show her range and ample success in her endeavours.

Stylistically, there seemed to be something of a mish-mash: the ‘classicism’ of Mathews Anne versus the liberal modernity of her ‘second murderer’ being a case-in-point. In other words, though there are novel, entertaining and even poignant ideas here, it’s all a bit confusing and, despite the high acting skills doesn’t gather enough momentum to engage consistently.

Like R3, Kilmurry’s vaunting ambition seems to have been truncated somewhat.

Richard III is at Ensemble Theatre until July 19.


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