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Theatre: Richard III, Bristol Old Vic

A new version of Shakespeare’s history has more style than substance in its search for contemporary relevance

DIRECTOR John Haidar’s new version of Richard III starts with the killing of Henry VI and streamlines the text so that voices merge, characters are cut and Richard totally dominates proceedings.

The intention is to show a pragmatic world of mercenary values that has modern relevance and to focus on Richard’s self-made reality.

The end product, akin to a graphic novel with the protagonist something of a Marvel villain, sees Tom Mothersdale going to town as the deformed Duke of Gloucester. Twisted internally and externally and existing entirely in his own evil universe, few other characters manage to engage with his self-obsessed creation.

Imagine a young Rik Mayall on speed playing it up — nose-picking, leg-dragging and gurning are all part of his repertoire, while spittle and venom fly in equal measure as, determined to excel as a baddie, he takes on the world.

This is definitely not one for purists — the audience laughs and chokes at the litany of deceit and murder as characters are stabbed, poisoned, strangled, mutilated and shot. The atmospheric lighting and electronic soundscape of the finale, with Richard flinging mud at the ghosts of his bloody past, could be a music video in its direct and unnuanced visual impact.

The actors deliver their lines within their own bubble rather than responding to others’ realities, with Stefan Adegbola’s Buckingham a smooth, two-faced politician, Tom Kanji’s Clarence an enthusiastic accomplice and Heledd Gwynn’s Hastings a remorseless henchwoman.

Apart from Eileen Nichols’s Duchess of York, whose icy curse prior to the battle of Bosworth shows some backbone, the woman are battered into submission and upstaged by Richard’s fawning, threats and violence.

Chiara Stephenson’s set, a Normanesque black tower encircled by arched mirror-doors and lit by a crown of lights, conjures both a crucible of deception and an arena of power and Elliot Griggs’s sharp, low-key lighting further enhances the production’s comic-book style.

This may well be a Richard III that has contemporary resonance. But it's mainly in style rather than content.

Runs until April 13, box office: bristololdvic.org.uk.

 

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