That famous first speech is doubly a nightmare for any actor playing Richard III. For a start, it's the only occasion in Shakespeare when the hero has to make immediate direct contact with the audience through an opening soliloquy. And bad impersonations of Olivier have turned "Now is the winter of our discontent" into a hackneyed joke. It's not surprising, in the circumstances, that some Richards go to extreme lengths to shock us out of our complacency - as Kenneth Branagh did recently by delivering the first lines while stretched out, upside down in his underpants, on a therapeutic rack.
Sean Holmes's vigorous and well-paced main-stage production gets round the problem - and establishes a controlling metaphor - with a disarming false start. Henry Goodman's Richard pokes his head through the self-consciously theatrical red curtains and emerges into the spotlight in topper and frockcoat like some Victorian Mr Showbiz. He proceeds to enunciate the lines about the benefits of peace in a kind of caressing parody of reassurance and, when referring to nimble capers in a lady's chamber, he even waltzes about with an imaginary partner.
Then, at the line, "But I that am not shaped for sportive tricks", he violently switches tack, tearing off his toff's outfit in a fury of resentment and showing us the twisted and deformed body it had hidden. Ripping a programme in two, he announces his determination to become a villain.
Richard's subsequent soliloquies become front-of-curtain speeches where this warped little vaudeville comic-like figure attempts to foster a behind-their-backs seductive relationship with the audience and make us complicit in his crimes. But Goodman's powerful performance is, on the whole, better at conveying the psychological insecurities of Shakespeare's anti-hero than at unnervingly easy rapport. This is a Richard who evidently nurses a rankling, deep-seated feeling of inferiority for which his murderous climb to the top is the grotesque compensation. When he mentions "another secret close intent", it's not with the accents of a suave machiavel, but in the guarded tones of someone who finds it hard to admit to the audience that he is aiming for the top.
It follows that Goodman makes a stronger impact in the second half, when, having achieved the throne (which resembles a peculiarly lofty baby's high chair), Richard and his fortunes start to unravel. Decked out in his new regalia, this king cackles incredulously as though he still can't believe that his dreams have come true, and he has farcical difficulties manoeuvring his outsized ermine-trimmed cape, thus recalling the description in Macbeth of how the usurper's title "Hang[s] loose about him, like a giant's robe/ Upon a dwarfish thief". Here, that metaphor is literally true.
This Richard is whizzed around the country bestriding a wagon and with a band that includes a full percussion section. But their cacophony fails to intimidate the women who counter him. In Holmes's well-judged and atmospheric production, Richard's soldiers witness the scene in which Maureen Beattie's wonderfully doughty and ironic Queen Elizabeth gets the better of him - an aptly humiliating touch that points up the contrast between this episode (where Richard merely imagines he has won) and the successful parallel wooing of Anne in the first half. On the receiving end of his mother's curse (intoned by the formidable Cherry Morris), Goodman's Richard shrugs apologetically to his soldiers, as though she's an old eccentric who has to be humoured, but he shakes like someone who has been cut to the core.
In a fine cast, the excellent Malcolm Sinclair turns Buckingham into the George Sanders-style smoothly patrician operator and Ian Gelder gives eloquent voice to the haunted poetry of Clarence's dream. The full depth of the huge stage is animated, as when at the climax the ghosts of his victims appear against the back wall and a stricken Richard accedes to his own death, beckoning to Richmond, who skewers him like vermin. Recommended.
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