Mehmet Ergen’s staging of Richard III is neither politically relevant nor entertaining. His contemporary take on Shakespeare’s story of the most violent and malicious power grab, built on lies, manipulation and the suffering of others, should resonate strongly in our contemporary post-truth world and it does not, which makes me deeply disappointed.
Shakespeare’s best known history play has long been considered the most powerful depiction of totalitarian power. It is also one of the most often staged Shakespearean plays all over the world. Engaging spectators with this popular play is not easy as it demands ever new ways of staging and text interpretation. Ergen decided to set his version in a somewhat conventional underworld of the British society.
The production starts rather well: Richard is already on the stage as the spectators arrive. He is sat at the small table in a bar drinking beer and playing with a tiny spinning top. Hicks, clad all in black, attacks the first soliloquy with gusto. From then on the production gets less engaging as many scenes lack any chemistry between Ergen’s actors. There are also badly incorporated and awkward comings and goings of the pallbearers, soldiers and monks bringing to mind school theatre productions.
Indeed when it comes to acting it is a very uneven production. Greg Hicks is rather good, but does not give a stand-out, varied enough performance. He relies too much on one voice intonation which makes him come across blasé and highly amused most of the time. It fits character of Richard well, who in this production is a clever understated crime lord, but this approach gets really boring after a while. For example, Hick’s indifferent charm ruins the scene of wooing Anne. His constraining costume does not help either: Hick’s Richard is more of the Canterville Ghost than a dangerous lunatic mafioso. Whenever he moves the long chain, which keeps his withered arm in place, jingles conspicuously.
There are two actors who shine, however, in Ergen’s staging, injecting much needed menace into this bland production. Matthew Sim as Catesby and Peter Guinness as Buckingham almost steal the show from Hicks. As a result the best scenes of this production are with them and Hicks. Sim’s camp portrayal of Catesby is especially good. Particularly interesting is the moment of the big reveal when we see the extent of violence that Catesby is capable of despite his slim, bespectacled appearance. He is both deliciously sharp and lethal while Guinness’ Buckingham has a fantastic, unnerving stage presence perfectly suited to the modern Tarantino-esque retelling of Shakespeare’s story. Some other casting choices are quite bad (King Edward as a bumbling old fool in a silk robe and crown does not fit the organised crime power struggle setting at all and provides only moderate comic relief). What is worse, stage movement is often very limited or very conventional (Arcola’s stage is tricky due to its small size so the ensemble use the gallery as well but with poor results).
Overall, it is sadly a middling fringe production with messy design and irksome music marred by its slow pace and unremarkable dramaturgy. Hicks is a confident, malleable, slippery Richard but it is mostly up to him to carry the weight of this production on his shoulders. If you have never seen Richard III before, would like to see a Shakespearean staging that is lucid and do not mind lack of surprises and political bite this is a production for you. More demanding spectators might feel discouraged by this production’s blandness and failure to draw parallels with modern politics, here and now.