THEATRE / North, but not quite magnetic: Paul Taylor sees Barrie Rutter's Yorkshire Richard III heading south

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The Independent Culture
TONY Harrison has a poem entitled 'Them & (uz)' in which he expresses his still-rankling resentment at a school teacher who jeered at him for daring to recite Keats ('our glorious heritage') in native broad Yorkshire tones. Poetry, young Harrison was given to understand, is the exclusive preserve of those with Received Pronunciation: 'You're one of those / Shakespeare gives the comic bits to: prose]'

This teacher would, you can assume, have to be carried out on a stretcher from Northern Broadside's production of Richard III, directed by and starring the poet's old friend and colleague, Barrie Rutter. For here (to quote another Harrison poem), it's a case of 'RIP RP'. A fresh, entirely Northern accent has been given to Shakespeare's play. Plus the odd regionalising textual tweak. Like folk on Coronation Street who say 'Shall we have uz dinner?', the First Murderer tells Richard to 'Be assured; / We go to use uz hands, and not uz tongues.' They don't speak posh or proper higher up the social scale either. Praying on the eve of the climactic battle, Conrad Nelson's intense Richmond doesn't come on all refined before the Almighty. 'Make uz Thy ministers of chastisement' he pleads, with the thumping directness of a man who's pretty sure that up in heaven he's regarded as 'one of uz'.

The Northern voice, with its short blunt vowels and tactile concrete consonants, makes a sensual meal of language, quite unlike the picky snacking gone in for by some of the more clipped Southern dialects. Though they rush some of the speeches, and could use the pause button more, the actors here genuinely savour the verse and communicate their pleasure in its palpabilities. It's worth lodging a couple of mild caveats, though. One is that the play gives the impression of a divided country (as when Lord Stanley apologises for not having had time to gather an army since his friends are 'in the North' and Richard, with a possible jest about climate, replies 'Cold friends to me]'). This geographical fragmentation is obscured if even the Lord Mayor of London sounds as though he's never been south of Nottingham. (Admittedly, no more so than in productions with wall-to-wall RP.) The second is that some of the wit gets muffled. Hard enough for a modern audience to register Richard's sardonic play, in the first scene, on the two senses of 'naught': 'nothing' and 'mischief'. Almost impossible if it's pronounced 'nowt' in each case. Nowt will come of nowt, speak again.

Played on an almost bare stage with minimal props and costumes, the production starts and closes with clog-dancing. When the whippets (whoops, dogs) of war are unleashed at the end, Richard and Richmond whirl round the stage on rusty trolleys. Wielding a fearsome grappling iron, Richard is eventually pitched off his. A curtain is pulled back and, to a menacing beat, an army of stick- toting cloggies dances round him (his own clogs stammering now a little). It amounts to the most exhilarating staging of Richard's downfall I've seen. The aftermath of his death, too, has a wonderfully quiet intensity as the soldiers return to stockinged feet, shirts and braces and line up to hear the new king speak. Peace comes like a change from clattering forte to piano.

In many ways, though, this is a production that is robust without being powerful. That cursing crone Queen Margaret, for example, must have been on HRT for, in Polly Hemingway's vigorous, violent performance, you feel she'd be a match for Bruce Lee. You get none of that creepy sense that it's only her hatred that's keeping this woman alive. A faint resemblance to Calamity Jane gives a new twist to the line after her final exit: 'Why should Calamity be full of words?'

Looking a bit like the Father of the Bride at a wedding reception, Rutter comes across as a likeable, decent man pretending to be wicked, rather than as a villain with the wit and charisma to make evil engaging. Some of his staging ideas are good. Tokens of clothing from each of Richard's victims (the school caps of the slaughtered princes, etc) are hung up on the railings as though in some increasingly cluttered Cloakroom of the Departed (items not returned). But I sense that the production - which started out in the Marina boat shed, Hull, and which I saw on its first evening in London - has yet to find itself in the more conventional setting of the Riverside. A refreshing new accent, then, but not a pronounced success.

'Richard III' continues at the Riverside Studios, Hammersmith, London W6, until 9 January (081- 748 3354).

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