Responses to the General Election result have been, shall we say, mixed. Social media continues to writhe with expressions of surprise, indignation, relief, triumph and fear. Retreating from this convoluted realm, I chose to take refuge in the arts tonight. So imagine my surprise when, looking for Shakespeare, I stumbled into a room composed of green benches and bickering politicians. Where was the Drama Barn? I seemed to have unwittingly entered into the bristling House of Commons. Shakespeare’s tale of corrosive ambition transported into a new arena; the winter of our own discontent made palpable in Drama Soc’s hauntingly resonant production of Richard III.
This is a play that could easily become a mere bloodbath
England sighs peace following York’s triumph over Lancaster – victory tasted almost as sweet then as it does now (Ahem, Roses) – but a bottled spider has already begun to spin his bloody web. Richard (Sam Hill) is a villainous hunchback “deformed, unfinish’d” with a lust for his brother’s crown and a murderous plot. The play traces his elaborate and ruthless ascension to power. In less than three hours Richard achieves a shocking, somewhat impressive, massacre of family, noblemen, friends, spouse and even children. All this rounded off with a battle, obviously, and the spider strangled in his own web of violent intrigue. This is a play that could easily become a mere bloodbath. DramaSoc’s production triumphs the brutality with so much more.
Despite the challenges to blocking it must have entailed, the traverse staging functioned perfectly. The prevalence of tennis-like political debates today situated the play well in this quasi-parliamentary setting. The structure of the set gathered the audience into the frame to lend an uneasy complicity to our gaze. When Richard began to peer inquiringly towards us, singling each audience member out as if inferring silent support, this became incredibly unsettling. He always used the centre table to support his crippled body. As the other characters stepped up to challenge him they began to do so too; a physical reflection of them slipping, one by one, further into his trap. And yet, from amongst this reeling plot were revealed moments of humour, bravery, passion and humility. With insightful direction and stellar performances, this production ensured these aspects shone out beyond the violence.
Those with a smaller part developed all the idiosyncrasies of a larger one, regardless of their limited time on stage
Before highlighting the overall success of this production there were a couple of superfluous additions that require attention. Most notably the incongruous introduction of Buckingham’s altered gender. Until the prefixing title “Lady” entered into the dialogue, Loussin-Torah was holding the stage with an epicene power. This lent her relationships with other characters a confused seduction that was intriguingly asexual. Loussin-Torah clearly had talent suffice to craft this innovative portrayal of Buckingham. It is a shame that her beguiling ambiguity was later limited by ascribing the explicit female gender. Furthermore, the use of the television to present Richard and Buckingham’s speeches in an election-like manner would have been far more effective if cut short. Initially entertaining and refreshing, the dialogue began to drag until Hill rescued the scene with comedy, creeping towards the screen until he was almost kissing his own televised reflection.
Usually, I would now draw out a couple of particularly compelling actors to discuss. Well, therein lies the rub. From the fiery indignation of Margaret (Jess Alterman) to the ostensibly minor roles enacted by Elvie Broom and others, this show was brimming with talent. Those with a smaller part developed all the idiosyncrasies of a larger one, regardless of their limited time on stage. More influential participants in Richard’s scheme were not weakened by the constant ebb and flow of their appearances. Rather, each actor returned to the stage with more confidence than when they last departed it. Thus with their augmenting conviction the tension slowly rose. This cast was an utter success.
The child was lost; violent ambition obscured all hope for his redemption
Nevertheless, one part must deserve our further attention: Sam Hill’s portrayal of Richard was mesmerising. His torrential speech poured out with barely a word marred by such impressive speed. Whether scuttling around the room or giggling with his accomplice Buckingham (Loussin-Torah Pilikian) he held the audience captivated throughout. It was not, however, in the terrifying rage or incisive wit that Hill’s talent was most keenly felt. In a scene in which the Duchess of York (Em Barrett) censures her son with, albeit deserved, caustic and violent prose he revealed an aspect of Richard’s character that was unforgettable. For a brief moment the voluble tongue, roaming body and smirking mouth all faltered. The memory of his youth, crippled and resented, began to play across his features. I was shocked to find myself pitying the man. Then he raised his gleaming eyes slowly from the ground, licked his lips and grinned. The child was lost; violent ambition obscured all hope for his redemption. Hill should be proud of such a nuanced performance. The entire cast and production team must be commended for creating this moving and, quite frankly, brilliant production.
*Richard III is showing 15th-17th of May at the Drama Barn, University of York.