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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon


  Jonjo O’Neill and Alex Waldmann/ Ph: Hugo Glendinning

They’re raining Richards at the moment. Following Jonathan Slinger’s mesmerising psychotic in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s history plays cycle and Kevin Spacey’s malevolent fascist at the Old Vic, along comes Irish actor Jonjo O’Neill to start the RSC’s new summer season; and there’s still Mark Rylance to come in the role at the Globe.
The popular theory nowadays is that this blackly funny chronicle play is best seen as part of the cycle, with the conclusion of the War of the Roses and the founding by Richmond, on Bosworth Field, of the Tudor dynasty and what Shakespeare saw as the political stability in good Queen Elizabeth’s reign.
But that always discounts the play’s stand-alone qualities as a star vehicle and its own intrinsic merit as a sequence of riveting scenes. On the first count, O’Neill is less insistent about being a baddie than most Crookbacks, less “brilliant” (although he could have been; his recent RSC Mercutio was far more of a pyrotechnical turn) and hardly crippled at all: no hump, sticks or clanging callipers for him. 
On the second, director Roxana Silbert, an RSC associate, and newly appointed director of the re-built Birmingham Rep, delivers an efficient, fast-moving production, designed in modern dress and greatcoats by Ti Green against a panelled wall that opens for spectral entrances and changes colour from livid green to blood red.
With a Richard who slithers round the stage instead of hogging it, the scenes with hired assassins, political traitors and grieving queens stand out in sharper focus. Similarly, the extraordinary dialogue of hesitation and fear between Clarence’s murderers is all the more effective because Richard’s brother Clarence is also underpowered in Edmund Kingsley’s careful but anaemic delivery of his great nightmare speech.
It’s as though the sharp edges of the men, innocent or villainous, have been ironed out, leaving the women – Sandra Duncan’s Duchess of York, Paola Dionisotti’s vengeful Queen Margaret, Pippa Nixon’s svelte Lady Anne and Siobhan Redmond’s fearsome Queen Elizabeth, Edward IV’s widow, all of them excellent – to rule the roost.
And as if to make sure they do, Silbert has even under-cast Buckingham, too. The kingmaker turncoat is played by Brian Ferguson not as “the deep, revolving and witty” political fixer of the text, but as a rather boring, snappy-suited civil servant with a strong resemblance to a thinner, lesser Kenneth Branagh.
The great moment of Buckingham’s icy rejection when he comes claiming his reward – “I am not in the giving vein today” – is discharged with a casual flick, as if to say, “I think I’ll have an apple instead.” It’s not that these moments need the old-style flourish of an Olivier or a Wolfit, but they are less dramatic without; they are the tent-poles to support the full canvas of an interpretation.  
With O’Neill, his evil is merely an aspect of his sly, sinister charm. He doesn’t cackle or bark, and there’s only one real moment of melodramatic evil, when he pins the young prince who’s jumped on his back to the ground. You can see how the RSC might think this approach would work for once. But in practice, it doesn’t.
Still, there are some good supporting performances from John Stahl as Hastings (the prop of his severed head is a masterpiece), David Fielder as a bluff Earl of Derby (you half expect him to order a pint of bitter in every other speech) and Alex Waldmann as a busy-bee of the ever-present Catesby.
The programme lists these characters without their Christian names (“Sir Catesby,” “Sir Blount,” “Sir Ratcliffe,” etc), a shocking lapse of etiquette. But maybe it’s just part of a new wave of feminism in the company, and a symptom of the emasculation of Richard himself. The cast list also invents a daughter for Clarence. And in the second production in the Swan season, King John, the Bastard Faulconbridge and the Cardinal Pandulph are both played by women.


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