Monday 27 June 2011

A brilliant pantomime of pain

Richard III, Hampstead Theatre, London

‘Bloody, bloody England’ indeed in Propeller’s sharply amputated and annotated version of Richard III, which lends England’s less celebrated civil war all the brash menace of an encroaching buzzsaw. Edward Hall’s production is so thrilling and guttural, its Plantagenet protagonist so slickly maniacal, that its second half tips brazenly into high camp. As it cackles on, it seems increasingly a pantomime of pain.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Hall revels in the play’s ultraviolence, such that each dispatching is grizzlier than the last. Masked soldiers carry improvised implements instead of weaponry. Chainsaws rip through cartilage, electric drills bore into brains and sickles hook intestines like rubber ducks from a fairground stall. Thick strands of arterial blood loop through the air. It’s almost graceful in its brutality, haunted by the spectres of Kubrick, Hitchcock and Tarantino.

By the time that Wayne Cater’s Tyrell appears as a bogeyman figure – soft toys dangling from his belt, his facial features distorted by a Perspex mask – and Robert Hand’s Richmond arrives clad in a brilliant white suit to save the day, Hall seems to be suggesting that dictatorships escalate to the point of parodying themselves. When corrupt leaders believe themselves invulnerable, their cruel methods extrapolate towards sadism, serving no purpose beyond themselves.

Not for nothing is Richard Clothier’s Richard, like Draco Malfoy, Roy Batty and Max Zorin before him, a blonde villain. Severely and handsomely Aryan, dressed in a fusion of military spick and velvety louche, he looks the spit of archetypal Nazi command.

In fact, Clothier makes a rather fascinating creature early on. Unusually upright for a crookback, he seems to have turned his deformities into strengths. There’s a trace of bionic supervillain to him. His hunched shoulder, covered in leather, ripples like steroid-infused muscle; his braced leg has the power of the Hulk’s fist, causing miniature earthquakes when stamped; his missing left hand is replaced with knives and hooks. He looks like Riff-Raff straightened out and surgically enhanced.

Not only does he command gruesome butchery, his regime heeds the dead no respect. Body bags are dumped like household refuse and trodden over. This is a Richard with no regard for the flesh and Clothier brilliantly suggests a man who has long since divorced identity and physical form. At one point we discover him knelt in prayer, a cane thwacking down on his hunch. Hall takes this dualism to extremes, slamming the slaughterhouse into the cathedral. His chorus of butchers – all masked with bandages, such that one can’t be sure whether they are victims or perpetrators – don’t so much whistle while they work as hymn in layered choral arrangements.

If Clothier’s performance has faults, it is that it can seem composite, stitched together like Frankenstein’s monster, rather than a complex whole. He spends much of Act 4 showing Richard as a child, legs dangling from his throne. Though justifiably suggesting leadership as guesswork and a psychology stalled in infancy, this seems a point-proving detour. However well Hall blends his tools – here the singing segues into tinkling music box and toys replace the torturous weapons – one suspects that he is working in slogans, rather than subtle refrains.

If that hampers the literary-critical weight of Propeller’s production, it only enhances its punchy gratification. Bursting at the seams with invention, this remixed Richard III is bloody, bloody brilliant.


Till 9 July 2011


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