Sunday 18 October 2015

Richard III – West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds

[seen 03/10/15]

As we see from my Odyssey: Missing, Presumed Dead review, I was having a bit of a rough time watching UK theatre again after Belgrade. However, where with The Odyssey in Liverpool it made me irritable and prone to sarcasm, in the case of this Richard III it made me a bit sad but mostly puzzled.

Because, in theory, there’s really nothing very wrong with this RIII. In theory. As other reviewers have noticed, it opens very hopefully indeed, with some henchmen in wipe-clean aprons hosing the blood away down a drain in a frightening-looking blank room (see above) with high curved walls (of which, more later).

The problem is, that moment is pretty much entirely isolated. As Roger Foss notes (rightly) in his Stage review, “it’s often unclear who’s hating who and why within the hierarchy of interrelated royals and nobles, especially when some characters are missing”. I mean, I’ve seen RIII, what? A dozen times, maybe? I’ve watched the McKellan film a bunch more. I saw it *in German* in May, in a production which achieved near-perfect clarity (if not much else), so it’s kind of an achievement to make a production in English which pretty much completely loses one.

But then, I think part of the reason it kept losing me was that I keep accidentally forgetting to watch. Again, I mean no malice and I’d love this no to be true, but this particular performance, for whatever reasons (and I don’t think the barely 1/5th full auditorium on Saturday night helped with the buzz), really did not hold the attention to the point of seeming to positively repel it at times.

Weirdly (and what do I know?), it felt like *some* of the problem was the continual over-bright lighting. There were a few in-between-scenes states which looked great, but as soon as everyone for the scene had assembled the whole stage was flooded again with brightness. It’s a fine intellectual decision, of course. Equating mediaeval violence to darkness, and castles, and candlelight does feel like it might be the most obvious thing in the world. Bright, shiny, sci-fi/1930s dystopia (like, say, Headlong’s 1984) is a good counter-instinct, but on this set, to my mind, it just doesn’t come off. Which is a pity, but also – while watching – a massive, massive stumbling block.

I similarly wasn’t all that into what Reece Dinsdale was doing with Richard Hitler the III, either. I mean, there didn’t feel like there was anything *wrong* with it, just something not really being my thing. But, at the same time, it also felt like there *was* some sort of technical flaw in the performance; whether be it diction, projection, insufficient energy of the right sort, I couldn’t say. That’s not really my end of things. As with many other critics, I thought my job was to turn up on or after press night – trusting to a general level of competence – to quibble about readings of plays, and give an account of what a director has done with a play, not to diagnose why the acting is a bit awry.

Of course, there’s also the problem with theatre being live that this was just an off night, and so many of these “problems”, as I perceived them, are one-offs; the results of a two-show day at the end of a tough week, on a quiet night. And as such it’s just bad luck for them (and me) that that’s the night I happened to see.

Which is partly why I’ve sat on this review for so long. Because it doesn’t really have much to say.

I didn’t really love the production, but I wasn’t really convinced I was seeing it in ideal conditions (which, given that it was Saturday night in one of the UK’s major cities, is a problem anyway). It felt like the whole enterprise was sound enough intellectually, as far as straight-forward productions of RIII go. I wasn’t big into the Very Bright Lighting and some of the acting/characterisation felt a bit haphazard – not enough sense of who was who.


Perhaps the thing I did find most interesting was the first appearance that weekend (3rd/4th Oct) of the curved wall, straight out of the Schaubühne’s smaller stage, memorable from Benedict Andrews’s German-language (première?) production of Cleansed.

Of course, the cyclorama isn’t uncommon in German theatre designs (the Volksbühne has a *massive* one), but I wonder if this scene in Brazil is the ur-text for this?

[Or, was it this loading bay on Manchester’s Oxford Road?

(below: the Schaubuhne RIII set)

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