‘What do I fear? Myself?’ Act V, Scene III, Richard III
Hamlet had it right when he advised the actors to ‘hold the mirror up to nature’, but I have never seen an actor follow through on Shakespeare’s advice so trenchantly. Richard, Duke of Gloucester, the insidious serial killer-cum-King, boasts about his manipulative skills, claiming, ‘I can add colours to the chameleon’- but these words are not just performed, but embodied by Tom Mothersdale, who plays the unhinged King.
Like a sickening lightning bolt – a ‘bottled spider’ unleashed – he first appears on the Bristol Old Vic stage as an angular form; his body parts jut out: he is frightening. With Mothersdale’s delivery, Richard is also extremely darkly humorous. He injects sarcasm and venom into his part, fluctuating constantly between the roles of narcissist, schemer, King, and – most surprisingly – friend to the audience. I found myself on Richard’s side throughout. Of course, he probably wouldn’t get a birthday invite, and I especially wouldn’t follow him to any dubious towers, but the way in which Mothersdale gets the audience to engage and sympathise with Richard is brilliant – particularly as during Shakespeare productions performed today, too often we become mere observers. However, sitting in the pit, I felt like a groundling – completely enveloped by his barbed allure. The stage had been ingeniously extended so that he towered over the audience – at least, as much as his hunch and deformed limbs would allow. It was an intense two hours: we are immersed in his incessant plotting, the ecstasies of his success, and the moments where he becomes completely unbalanced.
Director John Haidar approached the text by writing out, by hand, the entire script in order to get a feel of the words: to play with Shakespeare’s ideas a little. This method could not have worked more in his favour, for every actor in the Headlong company delivered their lines so naturally, it was clear that they understood every phrase- which, in turn, meant the audience did as well. This should not be an anomaly in performances of Shakespeare, but too often actors think reading lines in a vaguely actory-way is conducive of a moving, thoughtful delivery of Shakespeare’s text. Yet in this production, every phrase was delivered with full biting force – which, in a history play, is particularly no mean feat.
This production is modish and slick - yes there is a gun – but it is singular, and tears through the tension during Buckingham’s death scene. In response to the gun fire, the audience collectively vaulted out of their seats: the boy in the row in front jumped at the gunshot to the extent that his M&S Percys flew up into the air. I didn’t think I’d actually see pigs fly until I’d seen a Shakespeare this impressive, but it seemed that this evening was a night of firsts.
The set – ingeniously designed by Chiara Stephenson – surrounds Richard with mirrors, creating a kind of futuristic cloister, through which the actors appear and disappear like apparitions. The mirrors are disconcerting; we don’t know what will be revealed and a perimeter is thus formed around Richard’s measured plotting. The crown dangles above the stage for the majority of the first half, edging closer to Richard as his plans to gain the crown come to fruition. Richard is reminiscent of Tantalus, constantly straining to obtain the throne, which, upon his possession of it, turns ‘hollow’. The ‘hollow crown’ is one of Shakespeare’s most brilliant images, but Mothersdale unearths, with nuance, the true emptiness of the monarchy, as Richard appears lonely, rejected and disfigured – a fact which a band of gold which he so desires clearly cannot change. The mirrors cruelly reflect this reality back to him; throughout the play they copy and they deflect; they make Richard’s face kaleidoscopic, multiply the angles of his ‘mishaped trunk’ and thereby paradoxically confirm his reduced state. For despite seeing himself doubled, he is still one broken body, and there is still only one crown – which, famously, he eventually would swap for an object of the equine variety.
Intense, exhausting (someone should slide some yoga vouchers into Mothersdale’s script) but quite possibly the best Shakespeare I have seen. Some courtly scenes could be enlivened, but such was Mothersdale’s electrifying performance that I don’t deem this criticism to be important. A seismic play in terms of its politics, but also in terms of what this performance will do for the trajectory of Mothersdale’s career. Get tickets, now. Sell your kingdom if needs be, to see this ‘spider’ unbottled.
Esther Bancroft, Theatre Editor