Shakespeare’s historical play recounting the demise of the House of York and the Plantagenets as the War of the Roses reaches a bloody climax has arrived at the Blue Elephant Theatre in Camberwell. The take on Richard III’s short, violent reign as the English king is presented by Lazarus Theatre Company as the first production of their new season.
There are standout performances rather than a universally tight ensemble. Rhys Bevan is excellent as Richmond (amongst other parts), soon to be Henry VII, charged with facing off against Richard III on Bosworth field. His rabble-rousing speech is suitably adrenaline-charged and gains an epic quality in defiance of the small confines of the theatre. Dyfed Cynan impresses as the scheming Buckingham, Richard’s right-hand man, and his moment of realisation as to his master’s true nature is excellently handled.
It is perhaps worth mentioning in passing that this is the first professional production of the show to feature a black Richard. We need not make a song and dance about this, and a London production is hardly the place for such a move to raise eyebrows, let alone for anyone to really notice: but it serves as a reminder that power-mad despots can arise and have arisen in every human culture since time immemorial. Taken on his merits, Prince Plockey is an unusually charming Richard III: manipulative, oily, cool and seductive. It’s not the colour of his skin that makes his portrayal unique so much as his louche suavity. There are no padded humps and exaggerated limps: here, Richard wears a dapper red velvet jacket and speaks with a silver tongue. This is the production that remembers that Richard charms Anne into his bed chamber, and the feckless Buckingham into doing his bidding.
In the same way that some performances shine above the rest, this Richard III is punctuated by brilliant moments rather than shining with a diffuse light. Of particular merit are the murders, and director Gavin Harrington-Odedra skilfully varies the on-stage deaths, but by inviting the audience to be repulsed by the graphic nature of them, rather than rendering those moments gratuitous. They have the visual punch of the horror films, or series such as Dexter, which have clearly inspired them. Hastings (Joshua Jewkes – see photo above) and Lady Anne (Catherine Thorncombe) meet their ends in particularly gruesome ways, whilst the triple-hanging and the much-anticipated death of Clarence (George Jovanovic) – a spine-tingling moment of eerie hand-held lighting – exhilarate.
The same isn’t true for some key scenes, especially the wooing of Lady Anne (Catherine Thorncombe) by Richard. The desire to keep it static and allow the actors to create the dynamic is a noble one, but the upstage position of Thorncombe throughout the scene creates its own problems. Rather better handled are the coronation and the climactic battle, which send the audience out on a high. However, running to just shy of two hours without interval, some scenes feel too long and others rushed.
Uneven pacing aside, this Richard III has more than enough visual punch, energy and imagination to bring it to life. It plays at the Blue Elephant Theatre until 29th March.