War of the roses: SUDS’ Richard

Richard III is one of Shakespeare’s most enduring villains. The famous crook-backed king straddles two worlds – that of the tumultuous past of warring roses, and the ever-present now of his opening speech – and his character amplifies this duality in his mannerisms, behaviour and language, seeming “a saint, when most [he plays] the devil.” Simply titled Richard, this SUDS production – staged in their tiny Cellar Theatre – not only gives us the villain who’ll “set the murderous Machiavel to school,” but we also get the backstory of this “crook-backed prodigy,” the story of how he came to be caught up in history’s machinations and how his downfall was ensured years before he became king.

In order to try and understand why Richard, Duke of Gloucester, is the way he is, director Zach Beavon-Collin makes the bold decision to intersperse part of Henry VI Part III into the middle of the Richard III. He also substantially prunes the narrative of Richard III, not only to allow the introduced scenes to work dramatically, but to create a new dramatic shape to the play we inherently know rather well. Recognising that Shakespeare’s history plays are not so much the history we know as an academic and scholarly pursuit today, but rather morality plays where there are no characters or people as in his other plays but instead character types. In order to articulate this idea, Beavon-Collin assigns actors to similar characters linked by function or motive – whether they be messenger, tyrant, king, brother, mother, daughter, widow, redeemer, confidant, or revenger – and we begin to see a larger, more metaphysical force at work behind the human machinations. While the cuts that make this concept work are already clever, more severe cuts could propel the story further, give it a more lethal energy, and make it more like Richard himself, ruthless to the core. This way, more punch could be made of the ‘new’ ending Beavon-Collin has fashioned out of Shakespeare.
This Richard runs for a rough three hours, unfolding in three acts. Act One takes some time to warm up, possibly due to opening night jitters or due to the cuts made to the text, but once we hit the first round of imprisonments and murders, there is a rhythm to the proceedings which only grows over the following two-and-a-bit hours. Act Two, drawn almost exclusively from Henry VI Part III and set fifteen years earlier, is quite strong, and does not so much interrupt the narrative as complement it. While Act Three’s rhythm suffered slightly from opening night jitters, the ending still catches you by surprise because you’re waiting for that infamous horse which never comes. Instead, Beavon-Collin stops his tale the night before that battle at Bosworth Field and shows us the full extent of the morality tale’s brutality, complete with ghosts and anarchronistic harbingers.
The cast are all strong in numerous roles, and while not all get the measure of the verse it is small beef here. With a show with this title, mention needs be made of Saro Lusty-Cavallari’s Richard, who is ferociously mercurial, duplicitous tyrannical and charming all at once. Lusty-Cavallari has great fun with the character too, throwing himself (sometimes literally) around the small theatre with a twisted glee, even if he barely leaves the stage across the three hours. Samuel Brewer’s Duke of York wouldn’t look out of place in a Marlovian potboiler as he bombasts out the blank verse; Oliver Morassut’s Duke of Clarence meets his untimely end in a barrel of wine with saddened dignity; Adam Waldman’s Earl of Rivers is strong and provides some welcome humour. But as in many of Shakespeare’s plays, it is the women who come out of this shining the most. There is an inner strength and fire to Tess Green’s Lady Anne, Lucinda Howes’ Queen Margaret, Henriette Tkalec’s Queen Elizabeth, and Alice Birbara’s Tyrrel. What is clearest in Beavon-Collin’s staging is the constantly changing power relationships between characters, and the cast bring these to life in vivid colour.
Utilising a simple set of black curtains and a white-boxed living room (designed by Georgia Coverdale), and lit with simplicity and brief touches of colour by Christian Byers, the action moves at a quick pace, changing from location to location with relative ease and little effort. While there are some moments in the staging and blocking which don’t quite work, this is more due to the Cellar’s architectural quirks than as a result of Beavon-Collins’ direction.

Which is not to say that this Richard is not an impressive production, because it is impressive and this is a formidable undertaking. These are huge plays to do, in part or in sequence, by any large well-resourced company, let alone a group of university students with a limited run, rehearsal time and resources. It works as well as it does because of the sharp direction, the actors’ energy and the creative manipulation of the text which keeps you on the edge of your seat, not quite sure of what is going to happen next. And while I still hold the dream of seeing a full Henry VI one day, this will more than happily tide me over until then.

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