Friday 28 April 2017

Review: Bell Shakespeare's Richard 3, Melbourne

Guest reviewer: Narrelle M Harris (who's just had a new story published in the adventure anthology And Then...)

I first heard that a woman would be playing Richard in Bell Shakespeare’s new production of Richard III (rebadged by the company as Richard 3) via an article the title actor Kate Mulvany wrote for The Age back in February.

Her casting was fascinating not only as a woman intending to play Richard as a man, but because Mulvany herself has a severe spinal malformation resulting from treatment for childhood cancer.

Shakespeare’s King Richard III, with his hunched back and withered arm is not precisely the Richard of history, as we know from the discovery of his remains in recent years. Many people also make good arguments that he’s a lot less evil than the Lancaster-adoring (and by association Tudor-adoring) play would have him.

With this in mind, Bell Shakespeare’s production is a further step away from a play about history and embraces contemporary issues.

In the micro view, it’s about a terrible person whom we learn has been vilified since birth for his physical malformation. Richard is a monster, with a mind as twisted as his body. But which came first – his malice or theirs? Did he grow up so cruelly scorned that he chose to become the monster they saw, just to get back at them?

These are questions I always find fascinating about this play, and which were explored well in the London production starring Martin Freeman which I saw in 2014.

Bell Shakespeare’s Richard makes these questions central to the characterisation of the king, where we see his actions but only hints of his motivations, beyond the fact he hates the world and deliberately chooses to be as vile as possible.

He’s also charming, charismatic, ruthless and clever – or he’d never get away with what he does. He’s much cleverer than the people around him, who are riven by quarrels, rivalries, self-interest, petty ambitions and greed. They’re easy pickings for Richard to divide and therefore conquer.

Despite his cleverness and gleeful treachery, Mulvany’s Richard is a lonely man, “deliberately unloved” as the actress said in her article. As villainous as he is, you can see bent Richard is either patronised or treated with utter contempt by his family.

It’s easy to perceive that this has been his lot throughout his life. That kind of thing has to affect your own self-image, and onstage Mulvany masterfully gives Richard a very believable self-contempt that leads inexorably to his later realisation: “Alas, I rather hate myself.”

On this busy set Richard is forever surrounded by people, but almost nobody ever touches him, and rarely with any kindness. All the hands laid on him as he is declared king bestow on him a knowing glow. He’s tricked them all (and us too), and yet there’s a vulnerable joy for him in the contact.

That’s not as heartbreaking as a late scene where he’s trying to find something to swear on that he hasn’t ruined, and Elizabeth hushes and holds him a way, it seems, he never has been. It’s much too late to save or forgive him by then, but that moment of fragility is profoundly affecting.

Mulvany plays Richard as a man, but the combination of her true gender and her own crooked back (revealed to our awkward discomfort at one point) add to the sense that this prince, descended from kings, is accounted less than fully human because of an accident of birth.

There’s mastery in making an audience fall half in love with a self-confessed villain, leading us to collude with him in dreadful deeds, and then ultimately to feel compassion for someone who has proven himself a pitiless brute. And this is what the actor does with her final speech, lifted from Act V of Henry VI Part III: “I am myself alone.”

The collusion of the audience with Richard is the other brilliant strength of this production and the way it speaks of current politics. In the play program director Peter Evans says plainly: “For our times, this play is completely about Trump.”

The production that plays beautifully with the fourth wall, inviting the audience to egg Richard on as he slyly claws his way toward a crown. The cast make the most of the wicked humour and Mulvany is flawlessly, deliciously, blackly funny.

But like many who have voted for someone who’ll shake up the system – and who perhaps have found entertaining, even when their utterances are demonstrably untrue and contradictory – there comes a time when the sociopath on the throne isn’t funny anymore.

Despite achieving the crown and, it would seem, the love of the people, Richard can’t rest. Brutality follows brutality and the audience stops laughing.  One particular death, shown graphically on stage, renders his previous sass and wit very ugly after all.

I’ve spoken so much of Mulvany here, it’s obvious that she’s the linchpin of this production. She graces monstrous Richard with such humanity that even if you can’t forgive his grievous sins, you can feel compassion for him. Richard might hate the world, but nobody hates Richard more than Richard does.

Her jewel of a performance is ably supported, although the remainder of the cast shine less brightly. Sandy Gore as Queen Margaret curses her enemies with great gravity and intensity, and James Evans’ Buckingham provides an excellent counterbalance in his scenes with Mulvany.

There’s so much more to unpack, but it’s best to see it for yourself. Whether your interest is in the study of a very human man warped in soul and mind as well as body, or in the study of how power can be seized by the plausible from the complacent, you’ll be rewarded.

Whichever it is, the power of Kate Mulvany in the central role sustains the play. Melbourne audiences are rightly grudging with their standing ovations, so Mulvany richly deserves the one she was willingly given the night I saw her perform.

Richard 3 runs to 7 May 2017 at the Arts Centre Melbourne; find details and make bookings here. For more about the Bell Shakespeare Company, visit its website.

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