Theatre; RICHARD III; Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon

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The Independent Culture
Richard III contains a wonderful example of political stage-management in the scene in which Richard, as prearranged with Buckingham, makes a big public relations spectacle of piously refusing the crown. In Steven Pimlott's arresting new production at Stratford, the blatant fraudulence of this exercise is comically heightened by presenting it to us (though not to the audience on stage) as a piece of naked theatre. The bishops who flank Richard, those "Two props of virtue for a Christian prince", are quite clearly the same youths who played the hired assassins of Clarence, and they can be seen pulling their episcopal clobber out of a theatrical wicker skip and making up in hand mirrors. This is in-yer-face bogusness, and it's characteristic of an interpretation that often achieves its bracing impact by pushing ideas to a self-conscious extreme.

The characterisation of Richard is very much tailored to the stage personality of David Troughton, a hulking, much-loved and extremely funny actor who has massive audience rapport and is a casting director's dream Bottom or Caliban, or (as is the case this season) Lopakhin. He plays the villainous Richard as the semi-official court clown, replete with cap and bells, which he has to limp off and collect before he can deliver the famous opening soliloquy (half of which is here presented as a public entertainment).

If you imagine a cross between Bernard Bresslaw, Rigoletto and a love- deprived psychopath, you'll get some impression of the effect created. This is a Richard who loves to find silly rhymes in his lines ("Tis death to me to be at enmity" he chants, making Shakespearian verse sound like a dialogue by Ernie Wise), while what should be lethal asides are often delivered as ooh-aren't-I-callous-caution contributions to the conversation. It's a splendidly stage-dominating performance, but I have to say that, for me, there was only one moment (when he takes out his rage on a bag of strawberries, furiously pulping them with his withered arm) where the chilling danger of the man was adequately communicated.

The production itself is often deeply unsettling, with a bleak prison- like interior-set which protrudes back and forth over a barren, rocky, sci-fi green landscape that makes you think that now is the nuclear winter of our discontent. If you occasionally get a faint whiff of novelty for novelty's sake, Pimlott's staging ideas have unflagging imagination. Once he's crowned, this Richard looks to be alone in a mountingly bad dream long before the actual nightmare on Bosworth eve. While Paul Bettany's galvanising golden boy of a Richmond is appealing to God up on the bridge, Troughton is making an eerily superstitious mock-sacrament of his last supper on the stage below. In the dream as staged here, Richmond sits invidiously by his side at the table, receiving kisses from the ghost of his ex-wife over Richard's head and generally drinking in the fan-worship of all the revenant wraiths.

In this production, their climactic combat is not staged. Instead, Troughton's Richard, registering an inner defeat quite at odds with the usual picture of the tyrant fighting to the end like a cornered rat, divests himself of his kingly attributes. Sitting at the side, he listens to the new monarch's stirring address and responds with a mocking, slow handclap. The ovation for Troughton was of quite a different order.

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