Richard III

If you don’t love Shakespeare…well you probably won’t admit it cos he’s the greatest playwright ever and it’s on par with saying you think The Beatles and Beethoven are crap. 

 Melbourne Theatre CompanySumner Theatre, Melbourne Thursday 29 April 2010
Richard IIIIf you don’t love Shakespeare…well you probably won’t admit it cos he’s the greatest playwright ever and it’s on par with saying you think The Beatles and Beethoven are crap. So the MTC crowd will toast Richard III with a bottle of Grange they’ve had since the 70s, even if it tastes like mould and vinegar.
I love our favourite Bard because his stories are brilliant. He writes about damaged souls facing impossible choices, tells some delightfully crude jokes and has a fine way with Queen Elizabeth I’s English. But let’s not forget that his writing is dense and bloody difficult to read. Who didn’t groan when they had to wade though a Shakespeare at high school and just read the Cliffs notes? I still go straight to Wiki for a plot summary when I see a bard tale because it’s rare to really understand what’s going on up on that stage (even in the plays I know well).
I don’t give a hoot how good the individual performances are (at this professional level, I expect every performance to be awesome) or how clever the design is or how witty the contemporary references are if the story on that stage is muddled.
Richard III doesn’t have an especially complicated plot: Bloke with short-man (cripple) complex wants respect/fear/love/power, so he bumps off everyone standing between him and the crown. The story comes alive with a curse from his mum and the unescapable and hideous propositions he offers to the women in his life. 
Simon Phillips’ Richard is chock full of original moments and bonus funny stage business. The West Wing corridors of power are instantly recognisable, the multiple death penalty chamber and the Guantanamo orange suits are poignant, the Messenger/text message joke is champagne worthy, and I don’t mind that bad-guy Richard looks a bit like Hitler and good-guy Richmond could be a Barak Obama stand in. But none of this helps tell the story.
With Shakespeare the story has to be the most important thing. No words were spoken in the best Hamlet I’ve seen. My favourite Romeo and Juliet wasn’t in English. The creators have studied the text and know it well, but they have to assume that each audience is coming to it fresh. The glorious words are the body and guts of the script, but they are a gross mess without a spine to keep them in order.
Richard III is about power and this version was set in a centre of contemporary power, but doesn’t play with the appeal of power. (Something done perfectly in The West Wing). Men (in this story they are men) gain an aura of fear/allure/appeal when they are in positions of extreme power. Even their immediate underlings and once-equal friends fall under this spell. How many young women washed their dresses after a visit with Clinton? In what world would Little Johnny have respect if he didn’t have power? Even the mad monk is getting it. But Richard didn’t. It’s not like Shakespeare didn’t put it in the script. This change of status and power has to be seen in the reaction of every person who comes near him. We shouldn’t need the limp and hump to know who the most powerful bloke on that stage is.
Not to say it wasn’t a fine limp – Ewen Leslie will be rightly remembered for this Richard, but I’ll remember this production for its mass of be-suited middle-aged, middle-class sameness.  Until 12 June 2010 Bookings 

Anne-Marie Peard

Anne-Marie spent many years working with amazing artists at arts festivals all over Australia. She's been a freelance arts writer for the last 10 years and teaches journalism at Monash University.

Anne-Marie Peard

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