tue 25/06/2024

Richard III, Shakespeare's Globe review - Michelle Terry riffs with punk bravado | reviews, news & interviews

Richard III, Shakespeare's Globe review - Michelle Terry riffs with punk bravado

Richard III, Shakespeare's Globe review - Michelle Terry riffs with punk bravado

A female cast rips into toxic masculinity in a rebalanced treatment of villainy

Axis of evil: Michelle Terry and Helen Schlesinger in 'Richard III'All images Marc Brenner

There’s a fierce, dark energy to the Globe’s new Richard III that I don’t recall at that venue for a fair while. The drilled cast dances seemed more frenzied, and there are more of them, and for once let’s start with a shout-out for James Maloney’s musical score. It’s a thing of some wonder, ranging from jazz palpitations and wiry strings to the throbbing beats of intrigue that riff on the rapid action of the “troublous world” unfolding beneath the musicians’ balcony.

Elle While’s production fair speeds along, too, cutting a play that comes in the top five for length in the Shakespeare rankings – with a title role by some metrics the longest in the canon, surpassing even Hamlet – to a compact 150-minute run. While’s achievement is not in brevity alone, however, but in the accompanying tension. The character of Richard III, in any interpretation, has a macabrely engrossing comic attraction, and the Globe’s artistic director Michelle Terry proved adept in drawing that out here. There were plentiful textual interpolations, mainly comparing the toxic masculinity of the last Plantagenet monarch with that of the last (for now) US president. Something of a Trump fest then, and it went down a treat with the press night house, despite the rain that discouraged all but the most dedicated groundlings (sufficient, though, for Terry to engage with them, dropping in and out of an American accent). 

To ask what’s missing is something of a rhetorical question here. Unless you’ve been buried in the first folio for much of the year, you will surely have registered that the Globe’s decision to cast Terry over a disabled actor was much criticised, no doubt with due propriety (although recent such castings have gone largely uncommented). We may rightly never get the full hunchback treatment again, and even Antony Sher drew on his own physical fallibilities back at the RSC in 1984, while Arthur Hughes was the first disabled actor to play the role there two years ago, a tendency that will surely strengthen. For now, however, we engage with the vision that While and the Globe company, an exclusively female cast here (one actor identifies as non-binary), have chosen. Terry has been true to her pledge not to alter her physicality, so there’s no hunch, though her slight figure is bulked out to match the petulant bravado with which she defines the role. (For the record, no horse either, that famous line from Bosworth Field cut).

Richard IIIAs a result, we have an anti-hero whose villainy can in no way be contextualised, let alone moderated by the experience of deformity. The loss of such psychological motivation is inevitably felt. The general butchery of the Wars of the Roses hardly fills the explanatory gap either, given that Richard was its prime agent, and other survivors as seen here are very differently inclined. Can Richard III then be parsed as a “cruelty play”, even given that its dating, from around 1592, puts it close to that prototype of the genre, the (literally, for many audiences) repulsive Titus Andronicus?

It's tempting to seek other clues. This premiere of Richard III came five years, almost to the day, on from Terry’s debut in Hamlet, in a double bill with As You Like It, where Elle While was a co-director, although one suspects that the principle of shared company “ownership” of the directorial process, of which Terry spoke back them, has endured. What connections can be found with Terry’s Hamlet, a flaneur player-provocateur, in her Richard, other than the similar colloquial, improvisatory freedom with which she approaches the major speeches (Richard endows some soliloquies with a self-conscious indulgence that suggests they are played to an imaginary television screen). Consider an intriguing Shakespeare counterfactual: what if Hamlet’s final act had somehow passed off without the deaths, and Elsinore had continued to fester for a few more years, its protagonists unrestrained. What might Hamlet have become, had he truly broken bad? A fledgling Richard, a manipulating predator, the lethal centre of his own universe? Terry's interpretations have somehow given a strange plausibility to such a scenario.

If ever there was illustration to Yeats’s famous line that “the worst are full of passionate intensity”, it’s Richard III: how revealing, following the autocratic playbook, that when Helen Schlesinger’s Buckingham changes loyalties, the choice hinges on a slighted remuneration rather than anything like a moral principle. But for once, here, the best – the trio of widows from that unforgettable late scene, although whether it’s a “collage of loss”, as a programme note has it, or a competition of grief is a moot point – do not “lack all conviction”. The stand-out moment last night was the final confrontation between Richard and Marianne Oldham as Queen Elizabeth, as powerful as theatre comes, while its earlier counterpart, Richard’s macabre wooing of Lady Anne (Katie Erich) should settle into a similar intensity. Joanne Howarth, covering for an injured Hayley Carmichael, was especially impressive as the Duchess of York. If anything, the sheer stark power of these scenes could do with heightening, so that the contrast of registers, against the callow verbal agility of Richard (which occasionally, it has to be said, becomes shouty), stands out even more strongly.

Designer EM Parry emphasises a contemporary setting, masking the Globe’s twin columns in wire, with leaflets flyposted in Richard’s support stuck up for the second half; it’s a nice touch that the stage trapdoor becomes the conduit for the dumping of bodies, and the path towards execution for the play’s rapidly growing number of victims. I enjoyed the melange of costumes, from Richard’s black leather posing, to Elizabeth’s statuesque classical costume, even the almost Carry On Englishness of the Lady Mayoress and the dutiful police constable. Was there a touch of Derek Jarman there, and might rather more of the same have been beneficial? Helen Schlesinger’s Buckingham had a hair-do that seemed to be aspiring towards Eraserhead, but never quite got there. This was a punk world, of conventions unceremoniously and gleefully overturned, in which Michelle Terry’s Richard reigned supreme.

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