Theatre Review: Richard III

Bard On The Beach Theatre Company

Gunamatta Park, Cronulla

March 1st, 2018 – touring around Sydney until April 20

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Whether you think about Shakespeare’s Richard  III as a Revenger Tragey or History play is irrelevant when casting the chief protagonist. He (or recently, she) has to be superbly, immaculately, unabashedly conniving and manipulative and self serving and most importantly, must revel in his /her vices – exalting in them like a cool breeze through the mire of a humid day. It’s not a role for anyone with any qualms about going there – laying aside their own morality and conscience for the duration of rehearsals and performances. Nor for anyone too concerned with how they personally may be perceived after the final applause. These days audiences are savvy enough to distinguish between the performer and the role, however, it’s still daunting. Bard on the Beach‘s Christian Heath nailed it.

It was a joy to see him plot and scheme and work the fates of all through the fingers of his one good hand. We laid aside our own morality to take pleasure in his success even though we might have cringed at the blood trail. Heath’s portrayal was BIG. His presence and delivery filled the space and brought the audience closer to him. Not a mean feat when you consider the stage is an open air amphitheatre, by a community centre, in a park, by the bay. His only aid was the night. Had the performance been staged earlier in the day, the magic would have been compromised I’m sure.

His big acting style was complemented by big staging. The performers used the amphitheatre including pathways through the seating to make measured entrances throughout, encapsulating the performance and its audience as a localised event in the park. They created a spectacle in the best sense of the word – the kind of thing an Elizabethan audience hankered after, from a cleverly staged beheading to Richard’s ghostly victims popping up from all directions in their bloody tunics wreaking their revenge on a dreaming Richard. Gory and sudden in their appearance they were fearsome and shocking. All this without an Elizabethan discovery ‘closet’ or trapdoor in sight. Soldiers marched down the hillside setting and onto the battle stage, thrusting and parrying a well choreographed fight scene that saw in, the play’s climactic ending. The spectacle was ably handled and presented and necessary.

Amphitheatre’s call for that, spectacle and big acting. By big acting, I don’t mean hamming it up. I mean big demonstrations of emotion that are delivered with the whole body – gestures of the hands, torso, head/neck as well as the gait of the performer. Emotions have to be conveyed across a greater distance to the audience and the audience has to be able to empathize with the performer. Communication has to be big in an open-air amphitheatre.

The stage was bare, the costumes were lavish and the Shakespearean language a no-brainer for this troupe. Yet something wasn’t gelling 100%. I found that I couldn’t connect with the female characters. I couldn’t feel for Buckingham’s fall. And the scene straight after the ghosts accost Richard where he is finally moved by his conscience-despite the wonderful work done by Heath, I couldn’t connect with the scene. I became a passive observer not Richard’s temporal accomplice. Why?

Richard III contains some of the flattest written females in the Shakespeare canon. To make them rounded so much has to be read into the role that an English teacher would cringe. But it has to be done, the words alone do not suffice. The women are the personal conscience and the public conscience of a would be nation’s ruler, the play and the audience.

While the staging was big, occasionally the realization of the text diminished to a tableau of talking heads in gorgeous costumes. On a bare stage with wordy text this is a constant hazard. The actors would have benefitted from a little more from the set – a dais, platform, freestanding buttress – something to break up the space. Something to allow movement to, up and around, something to aid relationships be established visually and help to convey the subtext.

Martin Estridge’s Buckingham was ably handled but the development arc of his character wasn’t big enough. I couldn’t feel for the loyal right-hand man being overlooked, deserting the despot and then losing his life. It’s really important that as an audience we do. If we don’t feel for Buckingham we don’t begin to disentangle our allegiances from Richard. The ghostly assassination of Richard becomes a good bit of spectacle but fails to move us. The moral of the play, if one is to be observed – unrestrained conscience/power in the hands of one man is no good, is not felt by the audience. Would the assassination of Richard by the ghosts have the cathartic effect the dramatist aimed for if we could see Richard’s face? Or if we felt more for his victims?

All in all, it was a good night out. I look forward to seeing more from this company. Bard on the Beach is touring Two Gentleman of Verona in Tandem with Richard III until April 20. Disappointed I couldn’t catch the Gentlemen this time around, I’ll be looking out for more from Bard in The Beach.

I’d love to see Christian Heath take on Iago.

 

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