Antic Disposition’s Richard III at London’s Temple Church
Is it fair to give extra credit to a theatre production based on the venue at which it is held? if so, Antic Disposition, the company presenting this entertaining touring production of Richard III, will get extra well-deserved marks for choosing to stage Shakespeare’s dark tale in cathedrals across the UK, including the one in Leicester, the most famous posthumous resident of which is none other than the real Richard himself.
Last night the setting was a little place called Temple, your typical late 12th-century church built by the Knights Templar as their English headquarters. Surrounded by glorious architecture, relics and tombs, there is a sense of drama the minute you enter, and of death. A lot of theatrical death is to come – if you are unfamiliar with the story (true? untrue?) of Richard: dude’s got a body count.
The story of Richard III
Three hundred years after the building of Temple, the scene is the late 1400s, and the War of the Roses is winding down. We find the royals in a bad place, though some of them are clueless to how bad their lives are about to become – or how short – but we start with some laughs and posturing. In a nutshell, this is a family story writ large, but instead of, let’s say, siblings squabbling over Bluth Industries, this company is called England, and Michael is nuts.
A tale of three brothers, Richard III begins with Richard’s brother Edward on the throne, but in bad health, and his other brother George accused, perhaps falsely, of treason. Here’s his mindset: let’s just say both of those two went away, for good, well, then Richard would be that much closer to being King. Oh, there are two pesky nephews that are higher up in the line of succession, but as they are kids, easy peasy. And if all that happens, then Richard will wear the crown.
Which, in Shakespeare’s take on it, he feels entitled to. Fate has been cruel to him. Not only was Richard given two strong and popular older brothers, he has a limp, a withered arm and a hunchback. And a very bad attitude.
So this is really grim stuff
The play involving hatred, jealousy, civil war and the murdered princes in the Tower is not as consistently dark as you might initially think. Laughs are built into Shakespeare’s words, and more are brought about by the imaginative staging, modern day but appropriate costumes and some brilliant wise-acre acting. The star of the show is Toby Manley. Imagine Job Bluth as a murderous, situationally lecherous politician, one who is so, so pleased with himself. Hunched over, arm in a sling and with his foot cracked at an angle that looked painful, Manley’s boyishly handsome face frequently clouded over with no warning and he commanded the audience’s attention like a spoiled child. Richard is sly and can be charismatic. He recruits a partner in crime in Buckingham, played by Joe Eyre, who has that do-anything-to-get –ahead attitude you may recognise from people in your own office. Smug bastard that he is, you feel bad for him when it is Buckingham’s turn to be on the outs.
Robert Nairne’s Catesby is a henchman that looks like he wandered in from The Matrix and is a strong presence as he does his Lord’s bidding. The actor with the trickiest roles – three in fact – is Bryony Tebbutt. First we see her as Lady Anne, who plays the object of Richards’s desire (well, correction, that would be the crown, so let’s say Anne is just the convenient widow of someone he killed, and such is his growing power that he talks her into marrying him soon after. I did say he was charismatic). The Claire Danesy Tebbutt also plays one of the doomed young nephews, and most effectively, the small role of a nervous would-be assassin. Indeed many of the cast play multiple and memorable roles, and work extremely well together.
Co-directors Ben Horslen and John Risebero have taken a modern, stripped-down approach that works – the set pretty much consists of a throne, and a coffin. Point well made.
The sun was setting as the players took to the (non)stage, and as the light through the same stained-glass windows that Richard might have admired in his day faded, the growing darkness underlined the mood. Seeing this smooth and buoyant production at this venue was magic.
images courtesy of Scott Rylander