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Review – Richard III – Liverpool Playhouse

THE suggestion of Adjoah Andoh playing the title role in Richard III sparked a bit of a mini debate on social media among the traditionalist camp, who object to re-gendering characters in Shakespeare. They need not have worried though, because Andoh’s Richard has an almost toxic masculinity to him in what turns out to be a muscular, vigorous reading of the part. With short cropped hair, set jaw and a pugilistic stance, this is not a Richard to be messed with.

For an actor to direct a play in which they also take the lead calls to mind some of Barrie Rutter’s outings with Northern Broadsides, and the comparison with that other company continues in other aspects of this bold new co-production between Liverpool Everyman Playhouse, The Rose Kingston and Swinging the Lens. Set in Amelia Jane Hankin’s stylised forest clearing, surrounded by a translucent, muddy cyclorama, the action begins with a maypole dance. Characters speak in a West Country twang occasionally sidling into Mummerset.

Andoh informs her production with memories of her own experiences growing up in the environs of Gloucestershire, and she reimagines the otherness of Richard by casting him as the only black character in an otherwise entirely white company (well almost entirely, as due to the illness of Clive Brill, Hastings was played by Assistant Director Harriett O’Grady on Press Night). There are no corresponding modifications to the text to reinforce this concept, so one gets the feeling that it is rather more significant as internal motivation for the performers, having minimal impact on the overall sweep of the narrative. The end result is far a less radical re-reading than might have been expected.

However, viewing the play directorially through Richard’s eyes has the effect of casting a more empathetic gaze on him. Modern day historians have been giving the late King’s bad rep something of a makeover in recent years, and Andoh, whilst still allowing Shakespeare’s propagandist revulsion for him to maintain a brisk simmer throughout, sheds a warmer light on him from time to time.

The rest of the cast are not only monochrome in their skin tone, being mostly clothed in loose-fitting taupe outfits that make them look ready for a judo match. Maybelle Laye’s costumes therefore look more ghostly on their wearers in life than they do on their return as ghosts to haunt Richard, where they appear shaggily upholstered like ragged green ewoks.

Visually more effective is the use of lighting to shift the scenes, with the curved backdrop occasionally illuminated from the rear to bring us battles and executions in silhouette. The whole is accompanied by an atmospheric, folk inspired score from Andoh’s brother Yeofi.

Amongst a strong supporting cast particular mention must go to Liz Kettle for her powerful portrayal as Queen Margaret, Rachel Sanders for an imposing Elizabeth Woodville and to Caroline Parker’s outstanding Duchess of York. Elsewhere, Joseph Kloska gives a noteworthy Buckingham. There is also a surprising use of puppetry that comes into play as the ill-fated Edward V.

Whilst the concept of a black Richard III may not have impacted greatly on the overall telling of the story, it has certainly injected a different energy into the dynamics onstage. Everything has fire, momentum and unrelenting pace, which makes the show’s 3 hour running time fly past. What occasionally flies with it is some of the dialogue, delivered in dialect at such speed as to render a few passages less audible than they might be. Nonetheless, Andoh generally succeeds in her avowed intention to create a performance that has clarity of narrative above all else.

Productions of Richard III are not exactly plentiful, so it is pleasing to see that this one takes care to remain faithful to Shakespeare’s text whilst layering it with some thought provoking social overtones. What it sometimes lacks in focus it makes up for with drive and passion, and it certainly holds the attention of its audience well. It might not entirely redeem Richard’s good name, but it certainly gives us a good deal to think about.

Richard III is at the Playhouse until 22nd April after which it transfers to the Rose Theatre, Kingston from 26th April to 13th May.

Star rating – 3½ stars

Review by Nigel Smith

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