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Theatre Review: Richard III ***

Scott Purvis reviews 'a cut-throat, no-nonsense and intimate production' from Bard in the Botanics.

In a week where the news is all political machinations and mastications, theatre should be a shelter from the storm of the B-word (and whether that particular curse-word is "Brexit" or "Boris" is up to you).

How reassuring it is then to sit down in a Victorian greenhouse, enclosed in the wild jungles of the Botanic Gardens, and watch the rise of Richard III unfold like a death certificate. Here, Richard the opportunist plays realpolitik and the House of Cards, manipulating his way to the highest office in the land through fake news and mistruths. There's nothing at all familiar about that. Nope. Not one thing.

It isn't the easiest sell with the excellent production of Hamlet casting his antic disposition next door. Indeed, Richard III will be untrodden territory for many theatregoers - one was overheard asking if he was the "bloke who was buried in a car park." As the thorns of the War of the Roses draw their last drops of blood, England is promised peace under its new king, Edward IV. As soon as the throne is secured, Eddie's younger brother Tricky Dicky makes a move, pursuing the widow of a former king, gaining her hand and angling his skull towards the crown as he bumps off every obstacle in his path to clutching the golden sceptre. Richard is Macbeth without the guilt and an Iago of the kingly court who drinks his villainy like a fine wine.

If the political resonances are too subtle for you, the simple staging of the pleasantly echoing Kibble Palace takes the play even closer to the front page of Private Eye. At one end of the catwalk "stage", for example, stands a press junket lectern, flanked by two Royal Standard flags. Monologues are delivered here like Trump tweets, recorded on iPhones and widely broadcast to the online world. Here, the public and the private spheres fight like Jeremy Kyle guests and the result is a well-delivered exposé of the modern world's use of technology to manipulate the public. The smartphone-brandishing production, too, keeps itself contemporary by using cuts of Antony and the Johnsons to transition between scenes cinematically but using "Bad Guy" by Billy Eilish might be a little too on the hump in its use.

The cast have gone some way in injecting naturalistic modernity into this difficult and structurally complex fiction of Richard's rise and fall. Robert Elkin's Richard defiantly says that he is a villain and casually manipulates characters and audience alike in his seductive climb to the top. His soliloquies spark with a charisma which is venomous, like a snake in a petting zoo. Battling him is Vanessa Coffey's restrained Queen Elizabeth, a clean and lean performance of a woman forced to bite her tongue in the political sphere but bursting to speak freely in the private realms. It is a performance which makes you wonder how much more peacefully Theresa May is sleeping now that her time in office, and Brussels, is over...

The rest of the cast, too, perform the many roles of Shakespeare's play with versatility but the pace of the piece, as well the vast volumes of history enclosed in the text, can make the piece feel a little over-stretched, perhaps in moments confusing, in terms of casting.

Nonetheless, this is a cut-throat, no-nonsense and intimate production of a play which feels relevantly as relevant to our times as a social media threat to North Korea punched out at 2am.

Run ended.

Tags: theatre

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