Richard III, Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

Michael Boyd's marathon production of the three parts of Henry VI left you with the ominous image of the emergent Richard cradling his tiny nephew in his arms. Herod, you felt, would be about as reliable a babysitter. That image is reprised at the start of the powerful and perceptive new production. Here, though, Richard - played as a volatile, satanic little joker by the excellent Jonathan Slinger - flaps the bundle into the air to reveal that what he has been cuddling is merely a large napkin. This cynical stunt sets the tone for what is to come.

Located in a bleak, modernised world of pistol-toting heavies and helicopter raids, the production succeeds in conveying both the grim comedy of Richard's stealthy and outrageously conscienceless coup d'etat and the mounting presence in the play of the retributive past, with the ghosts of his victims regurgitated into a reign that almost immediately goes off the rails. Richard's strategy of eliminating opponents by falsely incriminating them is underlined with graphic hilarity when he and Buckingham go to the trouble of fabricating an attempted coup by Hastings - thrusting banners proclaiming "Hastings for King" into the hands of the audience, who sit on three sides of the Courtyard's stage, and daubing the theatrical gore of fake patriotic wounds onto their own faces.

Boyd makes an eloquent political statement by choosing to take an interval break after this episode, with the accusing words of the Scrivener "Who is so gross/ That cannot see this palpable device?", hanging in the air.

At the same time, the production transmits a creepy sense that the past will not be buried. This idea is given grotesque, literal expression in the shape of the bag of her son's bones that mad Queen Margaret (a snarling, witchy Katy Stephens) hauls around on her back; a grisly set of relics that she takes out, kisses and reassembles as a broken skeleton while laying her curses on the appalled court.

Given throughout to paroxysms of megalomaniac fury, Richard achieves barely a moment of peace once he has seized the crown, because the coronation is infiltrated by uninvited guests, such as the spectre of Henry VI.

By the end, his victims are gathered in spotlit groups. It's as though the whole world has turned against him. With soldiers training guns on the punters, the victory of Richmond does not feel entirely reassuring, and the appetite is whetted for Boyd's second tetralogy.