Paul Vallely: Gaddafi's winter of discontent

Bloodthirsty, charismatic and crazed by power, Richard III and the Libyan leader have a lot in common

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I arrived at the theatre for a performance of Richard III last week with an image from that evening's television news in my head. A line of men lay on a road in Libya. Their hands were pinned to their sides and their noses were flat against the tarmac. But the camera panned low. You could see the sheer terror in their eyes as a beefy Gaddafi loyalist droned a litany of places where his men had killed protesters and where they yet would kill more. The men on the road are probably dead now.

Richard III is a play about a man of violence who maintains himself in office through a regime of unremitting brutality. It was written around 1590 but it is a mark of Shakespeare's evergreen genius that the dynamics it describes are still being played out in Libya, and elsewhere, today.

We have grown used to the idea of Colonel Gaddafi as a figure of buffoonish fun, with his Ruritanian uniforms, endless speeches, voluptuous Ukrainian nurse, preposterous golf buggy and Bedouin tent erected in European parks when he arrives on official visits. When the Arab awakening spread to Libya, Gaddafi seemed at first a picture of comic impotence.

But now we know that he was neither inept nor incapable. He was taking stock, before mercilessly crushing the protest movement. His troops, tanks, helicopters and artillery have now taken the rebel city of Zawiya, the oil port of Ras Lanuf and say they will move next on the rebel stronghold of Benghazi.

Shakespeare's play is no comedy, either. Back in the theatre, the production of Richard III, a story of cruelty, callousness, betrayal, imprisonment, torture and serial murder, is the bloodiest of Shakespeare's tragedies and the goriest production I have seen. Staged by a company called Propeller, and currently on tour, Edward Hall directs his inventive, all-male company which has been responsible for some of the most exhilarating recent Shakespeare productions. Their Richard III is set in a Victorian hospital, with the primitive medical instruments of that time used by Richard's henchmen as tools of torture. Its Gothic excess extends to the anachronistic use of electric drills and chainsaws for execution.

That might put you off taking your 11-year-old, despite the company's inspired handling of the text, but it has an important insight to offer. It is one that Gaddafi understands well enough. Violence only works if it is overwhelming. A certain number of deaths serves only to embolden civilian protesters to rally against the injustices meted out to their fallen comrades; but kill enough and the protesters vanish from the streets like dew in Libya's morning sun.

Richard III is the classic image of villainy, his deformed body a satanic sacrament to his deformed mind. Shakespeare's later tragic heroes were more self-deluding but this first great villain is impure evil. Yet malevolence is fascinating as well as repulsive. Richard, Duke of Gloucester, invites the audience into his plots, speaking directly to them and – for all his dissembling to his wife-to-be, Lady Anne, and his brothers, peers, bishops and king – he never lies to the audience. So we spectators are drawn, in morbid fascination, into a kind of complicity as everything he plans comes perfectly to pass.

In the Propeller production, that extravagant mesmeric charm is thrillingly embodied by Richard Clothier in the title role. He plays the last Plantagenet as a cross between the épée-wielding British fascist, Sir Oswald Mosley, and the urbane Thatcher cabinet diarist, Alan Clark. He is heavy on the sardonic wit and layers his patrician performance with complex levels of irony which horrify and amuse simultaneously.

That makes us all accomplices in his bloody violence. I overheard two ladies in their seventies in the interval. "I thought the chainsaw was a bit excessive," said one. "It reminded me," replied the other, "that my chainsaw is in pieces in the porch. I must put it back together when I get home." This Duke of Gloucester seduces us as he does his Lady Anne, charmed by his malign deceits.

Gaddafi's charm is of a different kind, but is just as beguiling. I have watched him fascinated for an hour, though I have no Arabic, as he held forth in the square in Tripoli. (He went on for another four hours apparently.) But, as he showed in that bizarre fish-restaurant interview with the BBC's Jeremy Bowen, in which he denied there were any protests, despite Bowen's contradictory eye-witness testimony, he is master of a similar irony. He knows that we know that he knows that it's all pretence, even as he insists we cannot cross the chasm to Arab culture.

Yet the language is the same. In his curses, Gloucester reduces human beings to dogs, toads, spiders, boars and rooting hogs. Gaddafi's rhetoric is as bestial, with his references to the international media as "dogs" and his call upon his mercenary troops to shoot protesters he called "rats" and "cockroaches". He cursed the people of Benghazi telling them to "just wait". War is psychological as well as physical. Propaganda is to democracy what violence is to a dictatorship, Noam Chomsky once said. Richard III and Muammar Gaddafi use both.

And both inhabit a world of shifting alliances. Richard's peers constantly switch their backing from monarch to usurper. Part of what wrong-footed Gaddafi into inaction at the start of Libya's popular rebellion was the sheer mystification that the West – which had for years wooed him so assiduously – could turn on him so suddenly. In the choice between democracy and stability, Washington and London had always chosen the latter; suddenly the priorities were inverted.

Barak Obama and David Cameron, with high-minded hindsight, dismissed the deals made by their predecessors with Libya. Tony Blair promised help in extracting more oil in return for Gaddafi – who had provided weapons to the IRA, bombed a Pan Am airliner over Lockerbie, and was developing nuclear weapons – dropping all that. "Dodgy deals with dictators in the desert," Cameron called what seems, even in retrospect, to have been rather a good idea, and which may indeed have spurred the aspirations we have seen blossoming in recent weeks.

One thing was different in the theatre. Propeller's Richard commits in front of the audience many of the murders which Shakespeare directs should happen offstage, on the king's orders, but at the hands of minions. Propeller's account was more dramatic, but less true, as were the untimely electric drill and chainsaw. Shakespeare's villain, like Gaddafi, gets others to do his evil bidding.

In the end, the great trickster Richard himself falls victim to a trick. He tries to persuade the widow of Edward IV to allow him to marry her daughter. But he uses the same technique with which he wooed his first wife. The dead king's widow promises her daughter to him – but then marries her to the man who overthrows the villain. What undoes Richard is that, at last, he comes up against a smarter opponent. In Libya, perhaps Gaddafi will too.

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