David Hywel Baynes shines in the title role of Shakespeare’s Richard III. The production is open air, staging different acts in different sets around St. Paul’s Churchyard.
Sitting on a wet bench with a newspaper over my head, I really hope this will be good. I’m not convinced by the opening scene, which is borrowed from the ending of the prequel, Henry VI, Part 3. Although the scene helps explain what happens next, I’m not invested in the group of characters fighting, dying and declaiming. I can’t even name them.
Then the audience is taken to the next part of the outdoor set, the big black doors of the church gaping onto darkness. At the opening lines of Richard III’s (Baynes) soliloquy, ‘Now Is The Winter Of Our Discontent’, I realise why I’m here.
Fizzing with intense energy, Baynes has the audience laughing, yet unnerved, immediately. The comedy doesn’t come from Shakespeare’s outdated ableist jokes, but Baynes’s delight in his character’s machinations. He brings us in on his plots by addressing the audience directly as he walks through the crowd, winking at us, rolling his eyes. Every part of him seems to be moving constantly. Although he has no soft side to sympathise with, we warm to Richard’s charming humour and enthusiasm: he loves being a villain.
The image of the tree sewn into his shirt-front adds a nice touch, symbolising the corrupt family tree. Another semiotic effect is created as the doors, which allow the other characters through, keep shutting in Richard’s face.
The cast lead us from set to set, egging us on in character. Each set is more impressive than the one before. Baynes clearly enjoys the effect he has, as people smile nervously at him. After the plain opening set and the grand church doors of the second, we are led to the gardens, after which we return to the church doors. For the final scene, we enter the church itself. The throne stands, symbolically, before the altar. Piazza sings beautifully as everyone files in. Two members of the audience are rounded up, robed, and stand by Richard as he prays. Here we see one of the only props; the dripping, decapitated head of Hastings. Enjoy.
One of the best moment of the production is the expression on Baynes’s face as he realises the throne is finally his.
The period costumes and gender-bending roles keep with the Shakespearean spirit: Piazza plays the princes (as well as Lady Anne), Hawkins and Howells the queens. Queen Margaret’s (Hawkins) white, Bowie-esque eye is notably inexplicable. The cast manage to stay in character as they wipe Hawkins’s prolific spit from their faces and he is unrecognisable in his role as the surprisingly dry-mouthed executioner.
The tone changes from villainy and intrigue to poetry when Howard-Brown delivers Clarence’s dream sequence. He lingers on each image, drawing out the magic of Shakespeare’s language, another wonderful highlight.
Basically, cut out the patronising and unnecessary opening and you have another great production of Shakespeare’s Richard III. Just don’t go when it’s raining.