Richard III. Directed by Michael Grandage at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, 13 March - 6 April, 2002.
Sheffield Hallam University
Connolly, Annaliese. "Review of Richard III." Early Modern Literary Studies 8.1 (May, 2002): 12.1-7 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/08-1/connrev.htm>.
Directed by Michael Grandage. Designed by Christopher Oram. Lighting Design by Tim Mitchell. Music composed by Julian Philips. Fights by Terry King. With Kenneth Branagh (Richard III), Gerard Horan (Clarence), Andy Hockley (Brackenbury), Jimmy Yuill (Hastings), Claire Price (Lady Anne), Robert East (Rivers/Lord Mayor), Gideon Turner (Grey/Richmond), Phyllis Logan (Queen Elizabeth), Danny Webb (Buckingham), Robert Demeger (Derby), Barbara Jefford (Margaret), William Rycroft (Dorset), Michael Jenn (Catesby), Jonathan McGuinness (Lovel), Mark Bonnar (Tyrrel), Richard Durden (Edward IV/Bishop of Ely), Avril Elgar (Duchess of York), Elliot Jeffcock, John Tierney (Duke of York), Ryan Sampson (Prince Edward) and Tom Mullion (Ratcliffe).
The play opens to reveal an empty stage lit by a single spotlight. Men in white coats then wheel a metal frame on stage and Richard appears to be suspended within it, his arms and legs outstretched, naked except for his underwear. On closer inspection the frame seems to be a traction unit as Richard tilts himself upright and begins to unstrap himself, whilst delivering his opening soliloquy. This striking image marks the production's interest in Richard's deformity, updating it from the grotesque wigs and prostheses employed by Olivier for example, to something more in tune with modern conceptions of physical disability. When the frame is wheeled away and Richard sits on the floor to begin the process of dressing himself, he quickly inches his body into his trousers, the right leg of which has a calliper on it and the upper body is encased in a black and white corset-like structure made of stiffened rubber and material.
- The metal frame returns on stage in the final act when Richard appears in it asleep. Once again the emphasis is placed on modern medical practices, as Richard's head is held firmly in place by a metal headpiece, suggestive of electric shock treatment equipment, the metal crown of thorns alluding perhaps to Richard's death as sacrificial purgation. The frame can also be read as a metaphor for Richard's portentous dreams before Bosworth in Act V, scene iii, when the ghosts of the murdered princes, Hastings and the Lady Anne appear on stage and whirl the unit around, pushing it between them as they each hold the sleeping King to account. Richard then awakes and cries "Give me another horse!" and reflects
Methought the souls of all that I had murder'd
Came to my tent, and everyone did threat
Tomorrow's vengeance on the head of Richard. (V.iii.205-207)
The dynastic threat posed by his nephews is presented in physical terms as the frame can be read as an extension of Richard's own physical frame, when the young princes use it in this scene as a climbing frame, swinging from it as though in a playground. This recalls one of the plays electrifying moments when his nephews did indeed climb on their uncle's back causing Richard to fall to the ground with a howl of pain. This is followed by another chilling moment when the princes playfully undo the side fastenings on Richard's corset, which acts as a brace, forcing Richard to crawl off stage, unable to straighten his body.
For the battle scenes Richard replaces his corset by black trousers and gloves and a red jacket summing up his role as devilish assassin. The jacket had the added detail of a column of curved white plastic vertebrae running down the length of Richard's back as though he had been turned inside out, his deformity externalised. The vertebrae also served as a crest on Richard's back and were reminiscent of the bristled ridge of a boar, his emblem. Lady Anne in Act 1, scene ii, when she calls Richard a hedgehog, also suggests the image of a spiky back. The emblem on Richard's flag, however, looked more like an insect, a fly with outstretched limbs, than a boar and again is perhaps a hint at Richard's own mutated form.
The interest in Richard's appearance provides one of the few unifying themes of the production and was echoed in the costumes of Elizabeth, Anne and the Duchess of York, who wore dresses with a long chiffon skirt and tight fitting bodice encircled by a wide band with a bow, rather like a Japanese obi, a nod to the corset outline of Richard's outfit. Margaret on the other hand, appeared enveloped from head to foot in folds of grey chiffon, befitting her back-from-the-dead role in Shakespeare's version of the story. For the rest of the cast the attention to detail was noticeably lacking, with little done in terms of costume, styling or casting to individualise them, to distinguish the house of York from the Woodvilles or the hired assassins. The use of red stripes on the trousers of certain cast members, for example, failed to correlate with any particular house or allegiance, which meant that production seemed to be placing more creative emphasis upon the central role, to the detriment of the equally important supporting roles.
I thought that Branagh gave a good performance as Richard; he was dynamic, seeming to draw his energy from his determination to overcome his disability rather than from a desire to achieve the throne. Numerous comments have been made in the press expressing doubt whether Branagh would be able to portray a truly evil character, something I disagree with having seen his film versions of Iago and even his Hamlet. I felt however, that in this production of Richard III, Richard's potential for exaggerated, grotesque villainy was underplayed, with Branagh's blend of seeming cheerfulness and matter of fact anger used to stress the way in which the pursuit of power was normalised, giving the play a distinctly modern feel.
The production had inevitably invited comparisons to be made with Grandage's production this time last year of Edward II, in which he successfully cast Joseph Fiennes in the lead role alongside a cast of less well-known actors. Grandage used the same principle for Richard III, with Branagh as Richard and some members of the Edward II cast returning to similar roles, such as Gideon Turner and Robert Demeger, who having played the earls of Kent and Warwick were now cast as Richmond/Grey and Derby. Ryan Simpson, who gave an excellent performance as Edward's son and heir, also returns to play another Edward, this time the eldest of the doomed princes in the tower.
The success of Edward II, however, was due in part to the overall sense of balance achieved by the performances of all the members of the cast, but particularly by the four central characters of Edward, Gaveston, Isabella and Mortimer. There were some memorable moments such as the frolicking of Edward, Gaveston and their gilded followers, the overtly sexual nature of the relationship between Isabella and Mortimer, together with clever lighting and the drip effect during the scenes of Edward's imprisonment. There was always the sense that there was a clear view of how the production was going to look and what effect was to be achieved. It seemed that it was this directorial vision which was lacking in Grandage's Richard III.
- Shakespeare, William. Richard III. Ed. Anthony Hammond. Routledge, London. 1988.
Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.
© 2002-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).