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The Tragedy of King Richard III
Director: Lara Bye
Cast: Warrick Grier, Nicky Rebelo, Kate Liquorish, Erica Rogers, Jennifer Steyn, Faniswa Yisa, Rob van Vuuren
Venue: Maynardville Open-Air Theatre, until February 22
This Gothic production of Richard III bravely eschews the gravitas and high-toned grandeur normally considered de rigueur when staging Shakespearean history plays and tragedies – and the result is both disconcerting and refreshing.
What we have here is black comedy of savage intensity, generated in equal measure by situation and dialogue. A case in point is the grotesque courtship conducted by Richard early in the play when, as the murderer of a young widow’s husband, he woos the lady over the coffin of her father-in-law in the middle of a funeral procession. The blistering repartee they trade puts one in mind of exchanges between Beatrice and Benedick in the comedy Much Ado About Nothing... this is a notable departure from tragic dialogue, and director Lara Bye milks the text’s dark, acerbic humour for all it is worth.
Such an approach to this drama calls for suspended credulity, not only because of extreme stylisation as classicism and punk culture are fused (more or less successfully); the cast of secondary characters reappear throughout the action fully recognisable despite changes of costume and wig, making so-called plausibility irrelevant.
Death and violence are treated with an off-hand cynicism worthy of Monty Python. When sentimental effusion is allowed to bereaved women, it is so shrill and over-the-top that it alienates emotion – deliberately.
This Tragedy of Richard III becomes a bracing intellectual exercise which explores such engrossing themes as power dynamics, corruption, and quality of governance, not to mention the psychological anatomy of a human being whose physical deformity mirrors his moral decay.
Bye has chosen her cast judiciously, starting with the figure of Richard. From his first appearance, Grier engages the audience with a toxic blend of charm and sinister intent; his eyes gleam with malice above an alarming smile, and the power of his personality pervades the drama.
The performers who gravitate around him in various guises are equally impressive: Rebelo fills no fewer than six roles with versatility and conviction, Van Vuuren shows his mettle in playing characters as diverse as the murdered Rivers and the anonymous Murderer of Clarence, while Liquorish impersonates Lady Anne and a Cardinal. Yisa offers an exceptionally strong portrayal of the malevolent Queen Margaret before retreating into lesser roles.
Like Grier, Steyn and Rogers only fill one role throughout the play, and both do so with the authority born of experience. Steyn, as Queen Elizabeth, manages to engage the audience despite garish make-up, an improbable orange wig,and a state of semi-permanent hysteria, while Rogers as the sorrowing Duchess of York provides a dignified counterpoint to the prevailing caricatural style of acting.
This Richard III will be remembered for its audacity and freshness as it debunks many clichés of Shakespearean production to achieve greater universality. Love it or hate it, indifference is not an option.