Rough magic: Ensemble's Richard III

You know the opening, that famous declaration. It isn’t happening yesterday, it isn’t happening tomorrow. It is happening right here, right now, on the stage in front of us, in as close to real time as we can get. It is immediate, present, in your face; unavoidable; NOW!
A cousin to the Hamlet he directed for the Studio Company at Riverside Theatres in 2004 and for the Ensemble in 2006, Mark Kilmurry’s Richard III, playing at the Ensemble Theatre, is characterised by a sense of making do, of finding old odd ends and repurposing them to new means; of finding new life in the dark and old.

The director’s note tells us ‘we’ are living in an oppressive society where art is prohibited in all its forms, and making it is to risk your livelihood. It recalls Prague’s Living-Room Theatre in the late 1970s, the context in which Tom Stoppard set his immortal Cahoot’s Macbeth (albeit without the Dogg). This is a group of people, friends we assume, making theatre in private because if they did it anywhere else, they would be putting themselves in direct and very real danger. To quote Pavel Kohout (via Stoppard), “it functions, and promises to be not only a solution of our situation, but also an interesting theatre event.”
In the darkness we hear a barrage of barking dogs, footsteps; a door being wrenched open; with a crackle of a fuse, a man flips the switch and we are in a darkened stone room, perhaps underground, away from prying eyes. Around him are tables and chairs, sheets, rugs, old coats, boots; a ramshackle bricolage of accumulated detritus, baskets, televisions, cassette players, metal bins, drums, umbrellas, carpets, broomhandles. On the wall, a family tree of the warring Roses, the Houses of York, Lancaster, Woodville and Warwick. Costumes are old, pieces of clothing salvaged, presumably, from a theatre’s stores before they were forbidden – old gowns, coats, sports jackets, boaters, shirts, boots, hats. 
Sporting a cast of six, including director Kilmurry who plays Richard, doubling is necessitated not only by the theatrical conceit, but by the confines of the Ensemble theatre’s small stage. Small it may be but, in Kilmurry’s staging, it is perfectly suited to his intimate and magically subtle effect of making something from nothing.
Kilmurry’s Richard (duke of Gloucester and then King), seems more a caricature or pantomime Richard initially, although not to the same hammy heights as Jasper Fforde’s glorious Rocky Horror Picture Show-esque Richard in The Eyre Affair. In light of the production’s context, his Richard stands (or rather, crouches), a bottled spider, his limp often needing a running skip-start to get it going, while his face often contorts in curious eye-rolling tongue-poking lip-licking tics. He’s not a bad Richard, not by a long way; in fact, there are moments of transcendent malevolence and glee to savour, moments of dramatic intensity which the Ensemble’s tiny stage magnifies, that show just how splendid a Richard he can be when he is in full flight.
Patrick Dickson’s Buckingham – Richard’s right-hand man, most loyal supporter, confidant and sometime-sycophant (and the only other non-doubled role) – is dignified and stoic, and we too share the burden when faced with the order to kill the princes in the tower. Danielle Carter’s Queen Elizabeth is a frizzy-haired lion, every inch the she-wolf Shakespeare wrote, and more than a match for Richard. Her Prince Edwards is perhaps a jot too feminine, but works hauntingly with his brother, Prince York. Amy Mathews’ Lady Anne is noble and poignant, fiery; her wooing scene is perhaps not as believable as it could be (their motivation, both of them, is pure animal lust), but is nonetheless strong. Her Prince York is pitch-perfect in sports blazer and boater, and her energy is faultless. Mathews’ turn as the Second Murderer is laddish and brutish, while her Richmond is tremendous, a barnstorming rallying post every bit the foil to Richard. Toni Scanlan’s Duchess of York is another of Shakespeare’s fiery woman, calling down all manner of curses and rages upon Richard, and the scene in which the three women rail against Richard is mesmerising. Scanlan’s First Murderer is a thuggish brute, while her Tyrell is a beguiling dandy-like rogue, a hint of feminine charm in a ruthless exterior. Matt Edgerton’s multiple roles (often in the one scene, though never by himself) are entirely different people and clearly distinguishable, and he carries off his numerous ‘deaths’ with conviction, grace and aplomb. His scene towards the end with Richard, playing both Ratcliff and Catesby, is theatrically inventive in the simplicity of its realisation, doubling and stage-magic.
Kilmurry’s stagecraft here is enchantingly simple, a playful yet ingenious mix of subtle props, singular items of set, and clever lighting and sound. Richard’s nightmare on the eve of the Battle of Bosworth is haunting in its simplicity, played upon a white square sheet, the ghosts sitting behind him around a lantern, speaking in turn, unison, and chorus. Dead bodies are signified by a sheet, blood by red ribbons; a severed head a bag half-filled with weighted sand; swords are wooden poles, truncated broom handles rather than the mimed swords-and-finger-cymbals from his Hamlet, but the effect is the same. His rallying cry of “A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!” is poignant without barnstorming, undercut with a hint of desperation, a bottled spider unable to flee. His death, within a circle of Richmond’s soldiers, betters Simon Stone’s Hamlet for its impact, clarity and dramatic intensity.
My only quibble with this production is the volume of its sound design. Set in an oppressive society, the sound of intruders or threats to the actors’ well-being is crucial to the sense of danger and the undercurrent of constant surveillance. While effective, Daryl Wallis’ sound design – overhead helicopters, clamorous bangings, dogs barking, patrolling cars outside the walls of the room – are too quiet to be overly menacing. The underscore of a twangling drone is unsettling and beguiling, and lends just the right amount of unease to the production. Wallis and Kilmurry’s appropriation of Walton’s music from Olivier’s film, however, in all its cod-pomp-and-circumstance flummery – fanfares, preludes and marches – is pitch-perfect.
I’ve never really noticed just how funny Shakespeare’s History plays can be, or rather much humour there is in them. Here, Kilmurry perhaps makes the humour more noticeable, eversoslightly plays it up, but as with all of Shakespeare, you can never truly understand the full nature of the rhythms, sounds and wordplay until you see and/or hear it in front of you. Richard’s asides are deliciously manipulative, he constantly looks to the audience for support and collusion, plays one hand while dealing another behind his back. Kilmurry’s Richard might not be as dastardly and as devious, as coldly calculating as others’ might have been, but he is certainly one of the more enjoyable.
Perhaps not the ‘wild re-imagining’ we were promised in the blurb, this Richard III is certainly one to savour. Kilmurry’s stagecraft is magic, his delight at playing the crooked king all too evident, and the cast are splendid, honest and graceful, and they ensure that no moment is wasted. Some scenes towards the end drag a little bit, but that is only because we want to get to the ending we know is coming. Ultimately, in Kilmurry’s words, “Shakespeare’s Richard III offers poetry and protest, and whatever it wants to be within its written walls,” and you can’t really go wrong with that.

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