“Thus it is when men are ruled by women”
I have not been lucky enough to catch Propeller, Edward Hall’s all-male Shakespeare company, in my theatregoing thus far and it was only the perseverance of a new friend at Boycotting Trends that convinced me to make the trip (also my first) to the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford in order to catch Richard III, the first of their two plays that they will be touring for the next several months in rep with The Comedy of Errors. And boy am I glad that he did, for this reimagining of the history play into a post-modern gothic Victoriana-fest is pretty close to being unmissable.
The story of Richard, Duke of Gloucester, youngest son of his Plantagenet family yet possessed of a burning ambition to be King and utterly ruthless in his bloodthirsty, backstabbing, blackmailing and brutal climb to the throne, is one of Shakespeare’s longest plays but Edward Hall along with Roger Warren has adapted and re-edited the text into something more dramatically compelling than I remember this play ever being, mainly through incorporating an outrageously comic, even vaudevillian approach to the dastardly deeds that are carried out.
Michael Pavelka’s design has taken inspiration from gothic hospitals and mental asylums to create a nightmarish set of scaffolding decorated with instruments of torture and movable hospital screens to effect the scene changes (and protect the audience from the frequent sprays of blood). The Victorian aesthetic is carried through the costumes too, with the ensemble predominantly dressed as orderlies in lab coats and surgical masks enhancing the eeriness that abounds but there’s also cheeky modern-day hints too like a chainsaw and electric guitar lending a unique feel to this universe which really works, the closest comparison I could think of is with the US TV show Dexter…
What really elevates this production though is the use of music throughout to create a truly distinctive soundscape. The action, in particular the deaths, is punctuated by a range of musical influences like folk songs such as ‘Down Among The Dead Men’, Welsh hymns, madrigals, snatches of ‘The Coventry Carol’, all sung together in beautiful close harmony with some really interesting arrangements descending into a certain discordance using more minor chords as Richard edges closer to the abyss. Most affecting of all is the Latin Mass, ‘Dies Irae’, which recurs most frequently and is perfect at evoking the haunting atmosphere that hangs over everything. The music was developed by the company as a whole but Jon Trenchard provided arrangements and some original music as well so deserves special mention.
Dressed in plush black velvet, Richard Clothier’s title character is superbly portrayed: an arch manipulator of those around him and necessarily deviously clever, making up somewhat for his physical limitations. We never lose sight of the fact that he is demonically evil but Clothier imbues him with such a winning charm in much of his interaction with the audience and the presentation of his deeds. Whether climbing up the aisle with Lady Anne over a pile of body bags, the way in which he opts to remove the stubbornly stuck ring of her finger once she is discarded or the casual way in which he despatches so many of the people doing his bidding in full view of everyone else: such is the power or terror he inspires that he can get away with anything.
The choice to play up the comedy this way also deepens the horror contained within and allows for some highly affecting moments and strong imagery: the ghosts emerging from their body bags is a fantastic scene, Elizabeth’s anguish at the murder of her children is played out in front of a specimen jar containing their heads and the transformation of Tyrell, their murderer, to a genuinely disturbing-looking serial killer is frankly terrifying.
And though it is a predominantly male play, the four female characters, dressed absolutely beautifully in Victorian bustled skirts, carry a huge dignity with their more moral consciences and sense of wronged justice bringing an unexpected gravitas to their performances which was quite special. Tony Bell’s vituperative Queen Margaret is a majestically bitter presence, cursing people by flicking blood onto them and Dominic Tighe’s Queen Elizabeth is extraordinarily powerful and highly moving, suggesting a real maternal devastation but endowing her with the astuteness to outwit Richard despite his nicely masculine frame. Indeed, it makes real sense this way, this idea that women needed to act less feminine or be considered more masculine in order to hold positions of power and influence, with what better comparison than Queen Victoria herself.
Elsewhere it was most pleasing to see Sam Swainsbury onstage again and with Richard Frame, performing double duty as delightfully mockney assassins, skipping their way to murder Clarence and highly effective as puppeteers for the young Princes. Dugald Bruce-Lockhart also impressed as a coldly clinical Ratcliffe, bespectacled and impatiently checking his pocket-watch waiting for the next victim to meet his end, his is a beefed-up role taking on much of Tyrell’s verse and I also liked David Newman’s wryly oleaginous Catesby. Robert Hands’ ultimately successful Richmond is cleverly played too, presented as a complete juxtaposition to Richard (he wears all white to Richard’s all black ensemble) and the supposed restorer of justice to the kingdom, there are strong hints here that the two are not quite as dissimilar as one might think.
If there’s any criticism to make, it would be that the show is perhaps too overloaded with fresh ideas and innovations: I’m sure there are plenty of amazing aspects that I’ve forgotten already but with such an embarrassment of riches, this is a good type of problem to have. For this really is a fabulous production of Richard III which breathes a refreshing timeless vitality into this tale of ruthless greed and vanity, and the power of the conscience. Combined with an exciting grasp of stagecraft and one of the best integrations of music into storytelling that I’ve seen this year, this was a great introduction to Propeller’s work for me: now where shall I go to see The Comedy of Errors, Newbury, Madrid or New York…?!