I have to confess that I looked on last night’s theatre trip as a duty one; I’ve made it to the age of 50 without ever seeing a Shakespeare play performed. I know the things everyone knows, like the basic plot of Romeo and Juliet, and that there are some inventive insults that are probably hilarious if you’re a clever cultured person, but it just never, ever felt like something that I’d enjoy. Mind you, I said that about opera a few years ago too. Still, it’s all far too worthy and English Lit for my tastes which generally run to at least two out of three of musical, colourful and funny.
My knowledge of Shakespeare is pretty basic – memories of being sat in class listening to 15 year olds reading chunks of Julius Caesar out in varying levels of monotone disengaged me pretty thoroughly. My only positive experiences were seeing Kenneth Branagh in Henry V, and I never watched it again as I assumed that the young man sat next to me in the cinema was the real reason I remember that evening so fondly. There was also a late-teens dalliance with the sonnets. Or one sonnet at least. I was the kind of teenager that wore black, and nothing but, for several years.
‘Why didst thou promise such a beauteous day
And make me travel forth without my cloak,
To let base clouds o’ertake me in my way,
Hiding thy bravery in their rotten smoke?’.
On top of that last night I wasn’t with my usual theatre mate, but with my big brother who is the sort of person who reads books about the history of the English monarchy for fun. I have a policy of never, ever finding out anything about a show I’m going to in advance. As I only started going to ‘proper’ theatre in my late 40’s, having not really taken much interest before, I understand it as an opportunity to see these things as if they were fresh and new, without knowing how it will all end or what exactly will happen. I love the stories and the surprises.
That felt a bit brave with this one, because I know that Richard III was a baddy, or at least Shakespeare said he was – possibly for political reasons at the time. I know that he killed some kids, had a physical deformity and history didn’t remember him kindly although some people say that he was actually not that bad (apart from the whole nephew murder thing). I also know that Shakespeare’s plays are written in funny language which, when it’s read out by some grotty 14 year old, sounds like the most incomprehensible and tedious thing ever. So I wasn’t sure if I’d even be able to follow the storyline, let alone take any pleasure in the evening. (My brother accused me of being very negative in my outlook last night. I have NO IDEA why he would say such a thing).
Of course what I forgot is that Shakespeare wrote his plays for the crowd to enjoy, not for English Lit undergrads – although, of course, there is also a good reason that English Lit undergrads still study his work so intensively.
So, enough me, me, me – here’s what I thought of the production of Richard III that is currently at the Bristol Old Vic.
It was AWESOME! There was death and buzzy red lights and mirrors and spooky things and a head in a bag and fights and a chewed off ear, and visually it was very, very pleasing. Male actors mainly wore suits, female actors mainly wore flowing trousers and it was all understated but just right. The set, with a curved row of mirrors/shadowed windows/doors was also just right; it felt ominous and often claustrophobic and dark.
Which was fitting because this is a very dark play. From the first moment Tom Mothersdale as Richard was on stage he was bad, very bad. He was twisted and gangly and spiderlike, and I’m not sure if this is a comparison I should make or if it’s a horribly insulting thing to say about a Shakespearean actor, but there was something of Rowan Atkinson about his physicality. He almost reminded me of Blackadder, with the comedy dialled right down and the evil at full blast. This is something that surprised me: there were a lot of funny moments in amongst all the nastiness. The indignant ‘What?’ to the audience after saying something particularly unpleasant, the expression that any parent of a teenager would recognise after being given a very thorough earful by his mum (just because he murdered his brother and both nephews – it was so unfair!). He was almost likeable at times. Almost. And even that went in the later stages when it became a bit more Rik Mayall at his most frantic, whining, bellowing worst.
Of course it wasn’t just about one actor but he inevitably dominated the stage, scuttling through doors, gangling around the stage, lying and scheming and somehow getting the girl. Whom he got murdered soon afterwards. There were so many strong characters on stage – I particularly loved Heledd Gwynn as Ratcliffe (she also played Hastings) and Eileen Nicholas who was a magnificently terrifying matriarch and probably a lot of the reason that Richard was the bad, bad man he was – she seemed to have a few issues with his physical appearance.
I had no trouble at all following the storyline; King gets killed so that another king can take over, that King’s family should be happy as they’re now in power but Richard doesn’t want his brother to be in charge, he wants it to be him. The only problem being that there’s a few obstacles in the way. Two brothers, two nephews, a wife, a couple of friends, the man who helped him get rid of all the others – all of whom come and see him (as ghosts, naturally) on the night before the final battle with a lot of other people who are a bit unhappy about his way of going about things.
I’m not going to pretend that I can have an opinion on whether this was a great production compared to others. I suspect that John Haidar has done a good job with directing this. The rest of the audience seemed pretty happy. I’m not qualified to make those comparisons. What I can say is that this was a thoroughly enjoyable evening, I found myself leaning forward a lot during the well over 2 hours in total of the performance and at the end I had that great feeling of having been immersed in another world and the slight shock of having to stand up and get back to the real world.
I think I’m going to try to see some more Shakespeare on stage when I get an opportunity. I may even go and look for that Henry V film. I’m over my Scared of Shakespeare phase. And if you’re also thinking ‘it’s not for the likes of me’, well, give it a go. If you’re already a fan, I think you’ll like this one.
Richard III plays at Bristol Old Vic until 13th April