It seems appropriate that on the day I discovered that the skeleton found underneath a Leicester car park looks likely to be that of doomed king Richard III, I was due to see Shakespeare’s play about the very same man at the Globe. A downpour of rain towards the end of the first half couldn’t spoil my enjoyment of this terrific show.
The production stars Mark Rylance, former artistic director of the Globe, in the title role. He seems to be something of a legend among Shakespeare aficionados, and I thought he was superb here. His Richard is quietly spoken, a stutterer, with a withered left hand and a strong line in witty asides. I got the impression of someone left bitter and twisted (metaphorically as well as literally) by a lifetime spent in the shadow of his impressive family. Even his own mother rails against him, lamenting his difficult nature as a child as well as his present behaviour. He is undoubtedly cruel, and takes a malicious pleasure in his acts: holding Queen Anne by the hand, he requests his servant to put out that “she is ill, and like to die” with an almost gleeful calmness. However, there is a vulnerability underneath the malicious façade that evoked my genuine sympathy. As he lay dying on Bosworth Field, killed by the youthful, jubilant Duke of Richmond, I felt an overwhelming sense of pity.
The other actors in the production, many of whom are Globe regulars, provided excellent support. The production is an ‘original practices’ one which performs plays as closely as possible to the way they were performed during Shakespeare’s time. This means that the costumes are traditional, the props are of the time and the female characters are played by men. This could easily have turned into some sort of drag show but the actors playing female characters fit in to their roles well.
I thoroughly enjoyed this production: it was very funny, with many of Richard’s lines played for laughs. I thought that this worked well; in Shakespeare’s time I imagine the Yorkist king’s role would have been a figure of fun, as the enemy of the house of Lancaster of which Queen Elizabeth I was a descendant. Two scenes in particular stood out for me. The first was the scene in which Richard woos the Lady Anne (Johnny Flynn), having murdered her husband and father. On paper, his success is absurd, but here, Richard’s quietly-spoken apparent sincerity, coupled with the suggestion that Anne’s wailing is mostly for show, makes the outcome less implausible.
The other came towards the end of the play, when Richard staggers about the stage in a final battle with the future Henry VII. Dazed and confused, he is confronted one by one by the ghosts of those he has murdered. His actions have finally caught up with him; he slumps to the ground, a broken man.
In some ways this is a traditional, conventional production of Richard III; in others it is daring and different. In any case, it is a memorable, brilliant production of the sort the Globe excels in.